Opinion: Unesco conference stresses importance of higher education in development

The Paris meeting provides an important forum for discussing key issues in improving university standards around the world. Laura E. Rumbley, Liz Reisberg and Philip G. Altbach report

July 13, 2009

The Unesco World Conference on Higher Education that just concluded in Paris reflects a keen appreciation of the complexity of issues facing universities throughout the world.

Although few would question the symbolic importance of the conference and the themes it highlighted, the devil is most certainly in the details. There is a gap between rhetoric and reality that will be difficult to close. To provide higher education that truly benefits the whole of society, governments must ensure equitable access, international standards of quality, and education that is professionally and socially relevant to 21st-century realities. Nations must prepare graduates to live and work in a globalised world with equal advantage. This is a tall order for countries and institutions with limited resources, a situation made worse by the current international economic crisis.

Although the conference addressed issues common to all participating countries, particular attention was given to Africa because, for much of the continent, the same challenges are felt even more deeply and solutions are even more difficult to implement.

The final declaration of the conference emphasises the importance of protecting higher education as a “public good”, particularly in the face of pressure from international trade organisations to define higher education as both a private good and a tradable commodity. The public good orientation of higher education is extremely important, yet public resources alone are inadequate to meet the goals implied by this commitment.

Tensions exist at all levels between values, aspirations and resources. Is it truly possible to provide universal and equitable access to higher education without diminishing quality, while staying within the constraints of most national budgets? As Sir John Daniels, the president of the Commonwealth of Learning, artfully demonstrated, a precarious triangular relationship exists between quality, access and cost. This dynamic may be transformed in the future by the effective deployment of information and communication technologies, but new technologies represent additional costs and depend on a stable infrastructure that may be beyond the capacity of many developing countries.

Massification of enrolment in higher education has taken place everywhere and triggered a tidal wave of new challenges. In developing countries in particular there has not been a corresponding expansion of infrastructure or human resources in response to this growth. The challenge of expanding the professoriate has been especially difficult, with many countries resorting to a reliance on part-time hires with lesser qualifications. Massification has also introduced diversity in the student body throughout the world, now drawing in students from diverse socio-economic groups and ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as those with disabilities and widely varied levels of prior preparation. For access to have true meaning, post-secondary education must both open the door to new populations and ensure their success. This implies a spectrum of new services and people trained to deliver them, something few countries are currently in a position to offer.

With conditions in higher education changing rapidly, including greater international mobility for students, scholars and graduates, the need for shared standards of quality has also increased. There has been a growing trend for nations to develop quality assurance schemes and to join new regional networks. Their aim is to develop common definitions and processes to achieve a shared understanding of what quality in higher education means. Again, in the current economic environment, and with imperatives to address so many diverse issues, it is fairly certain that the quality achieved at the institutional level will vary considerably from country to country.

Finally, excellence tied to relevance was discussed as an increasingly important agenda item for higher education. The model of the research university has become something of a “gold standard”, particularly given the positions held by this type of institution in the global rankings of universities. This model has become the paradigm for “world-class” institutions. Policymakers need to make careful decisions about how best to develop national higher education systems, balancing international models against local needs.

In the face of so many complex and interrelated issues, it is extremely difficult to align goals for higher education. This is true even for the most prosperous and politically stable nations of the world and those with well-established higher education systems. The world’s poorest countries and those plagued by unstable and/or repressive governments are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to building and sustaining quality higher education systems that effectively serve larger numbers of their citizens. Considering the importance of higher education to economic, social and political development, failure to establish conditions that will allow higher education to flourish will ensure that these countries fall farther and farther behind.

The conference provided an important forum for articulating the key issues facing higher education around the world, discussing solutions, and developing partnerships. However, the true test of whether the conference will have a real impact will hinge on what happens next.

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