Unesco this week accepted the reality of students contributing to the cost of their university education, but warned that alternative sources of funding cannot end the international crisis in higher education .
Unesco's first policy paper on the sector is a response to the World Bank's recommendations last year for higher education. It offers an "intellectual compass", not "rigid prescriptions", according to director general Federico Mayor.
Unesco says institutions' missions and management should be stringently overhauled, and alternative sources of funding sought. The paper examines sensitive issues, such as fee paying and quality assessment, while restating basic principles of equal opportunity and public funding for education.
Unesco's biggest concession to the bank's approach is its acknowledgement that the issue of tuition fees and other sources of alternative funding has to be faced. But it appeals for grants for the needy to be introduced to cushion the effect of fee-paying.
The report says: "Higher education institutions need to engage in an earnest search for alternative funding sources. Moreover, all stakeholders - students, parents, the public and private sectors, local and national communities - must join in this search.
"Nevertheless, the specific conditions prevailing in each country indicate that it would be erroneous to expect that alternative funding can bring higher education out of the current crisis and stop the process of deterioration affecting many institutions, particularly in the developing countries."
"Unesco accepts the reality of the diversity of public and private sectors in the system, but we also reaffirm that public funding is essential and must be maintained," said Marco Antonio Dias, director of the higher education division.
Compared to the bank, "Unesco is concerned with much less hard-headed yet equally vital matters," said Guy Neave, director of research at the International Association of Universities.
The bank's view on privatisation and cost-recovery appalls many specialists working with or within Unesco.
One expert called bank policies "economic fundamentalism", while another said they were "so de-contextualised, they are suicidal" for many developing countries.
Unesco aims to galvanise renewed public support for higher education through an attempt to set the debate within a broader, more humanist, context.