Unesco plays quality umpire

January 4, 2002

Unesco should play a greater role in the promotion of global quality higher education, according to its assistant director-general for education, Sir John Daniel.

"The hottest thing going on now in higher education is the role Unesco can play in the area of global trans-border quality education," said the former vice-chancellor of the Open University, who became head of the education sector of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in April 2001. "The world needs a forum to discuss these matters, and Unesco seems to be it."

Education is Unesco's biggest programme sector with more than 400 staff, more than half of them based outside the Paris headquarters in field offices, mainly in developing countries.

The organisation faces complex challenges in higher education, most of which were highlighted at its landmark World Conference on Higher Education in 1998. Unesco closely monitors progress on the commitments made to promote accessibility, gender equality and information and communications technologies.

While Sir John emphasised that Unesco was not an accreditation body "for recognition of diplomas and so on, we are an obvious forum". He went on:

"We are impartial because we are in the public sector, international and not in the pocket of commercial bodies."

The growing international market in higher education was estimated by Unesco to be worth $30 billion (£21 billion) in 1999 and is increasingly targeted by powerful entrepreneurial interests. The organisation believes that with individual nations no longer sole providers, there is an increasing need to develop higher education as a public good and guarantee its quality beyond national borders.

Another "big activity" of worldwide concern, said Sir John, was teacher training. The HIV/Aids pandemic in developing countries and ageing workforces in industrialised nations are leading to imminent teacher shortages. "Between 10 and 15 million new teachers will be needed in the next ten years," Sir John said, emphasising also the need for inservice training: "There's no use having computers in new schools unless the teachers are comfortable with them. And there are many teachers in schools without training."

"If the G8, or anyone else, decide they want to launch a big teacher training drive, we can provide advice on how to do it. We see that as a major opportunity for involving communications technology."

He also sees Unesco as the advisory body for individual countries that want to develop distance education and create open universities, areas in which he has been a pioneer since the early 1970s, when he became director of studies at the University of Quebec's Télé-Université. Sir John, who holds joint British-Canadian nationality, was knighted in 1994 for services to higher education.

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