As Unesco attempts to create a new order for higher education, Federico Mayor explains why it is needed
When Unesco began the process leading up to next week's World Conference on Higher Education in Paris, a thriving global economy and the dawn of a global information society contrasted sharply with a higher education sector in crisis.
The fact that the conference takes place at a time of global crisis will concentrate minds. We can make few assumptions about the broader framework within which higher education will operate in the 21st century, but the need for far-reaching change and renewed commitment to higher education remains as great. We have to make lasting decisions about higher education's goals and principles and about the ways in which it needs to open up to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing, unpredictable and ever more complex world.
Hard choices have to be made - particularly on issues of funding and access - requiring long-term vision. The rising, increasingly varied demand for higher education and the need to make lifelong learning a reality put pressure on the system for specific change.
The guiding principle of access for all on the basis of merit (Article 26.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) also has major implications for the type of renewal required. What happens to the principle of merit if able students drop out for lack of funds, or if they fail the hurdle at 18 because of poor primary and secondary education, or if no suitable type and length of course is available later in life?
It will prove impossible to sustain a two-track higher education sector in which traditional institutions retain classic academic models largely intact, with some adaptations, while all around appears a huge range of alternative - and competitive - higher education. The traditional universities and higher education institutes have long known that they no longer hold a monopoly on knowledge.
But higher education needs to accomplish a complete transition to a merit-based system. Hard as it is to relinquish the high ground, the traditional institutions have to accept that the learning landscape, and they within it, will change perhaps beyond recognition.
The traditional model of a post-secondary, residential student body studying full-time, for three or four years, will be overtaken by a more diverse student body, expected to make a greater personal contribution and with legitimately high expectations and demands. This will firstly challenge teaching. When students are no longer a homogeneous group of beneficiaries of the system but a disparate array of investors in that system, a radical shift of emphasis occurs.
Relevance, both to the individual's professional needs and to broader educational goals, becomes an ever greater challenge. With such a high premium on quality in teaching, it cannot remain less important than research in determining individual careers or the status of a department or institution.
The changes on the horizon are acknowledged in academia as inevitable, but also perceived as threatening the loss of an academic culture. Can such developments lead anywhere but to an academic equivalent of the shopping mall, where a management culture smoothly regulates the flow of student customers and academic services? I believe that scenario has never been less likely, nor has the academic culture ever been more necessary. Not only can it survive change but by changing, it can find its own Renaissance, particularly if it rises to meet the opportunities born of the global crisis.
Researchers must find new ways to get ideas circulating, to interact with social players and decision-makers. This is not about government by experts, but about finding ways to feed the world's current level of academic and scientific achievement into the democratic process and - equally important - finding ways of feeding an accurate and realistic picture of academia's doubts and unknowns into political, economic and technological decision-making.
Reform and renewal of higher education is in essence a process that can reinforce democracy. This is a core reason why we are seeking a renewed commitment by governments and other stake-holders towards higher education.They cannot afford to neglect this sector or to impose change in a way that compromises academic autonomy. Academia cannot afford to postpone or limit the changes which must come from within.
Next week's conference provides a unique forum for concerted action. If the participants seize this opportunity, they can set the agenda together for higher education in the 21st century.
Federico Mayor is director-general of Unesco. Higher Education in the 21st Century: Vision and Action runs from October 5-9 in Paris. Reach it at http:///www.education.unesco. org/educprog/wche/index.html