The policy paper for change and development in higher education released by Unesco this week aims to provide a "shared platform of ideas" on the essential issues facing higher education around the world.
Unesco's first policy overview of any level of education indicates that higher education poses more complex policy issues and commands less consensus than do primary and secondary education.
Rapid change within higher education itself and in society in general poses particular challenges for institutions, notes the document, which is based on wide-ranging consultations with governments, academics and policy-makers.
Universities and other bodies, it argues, not only have to respond to changing labour markets but should be "pro-active", contributing to the emergence of new forms of employment and identifying new needs.
The paper outlines the main trends affecting higher education today - rising student numbers, shrinking resources and increasingly varied forms of provision. It sets these trends against a background of external factors, including the emergence of regional structures like the European Union, and negative trends, such as the fragmentation of communities along ethnic or religious lines.
Unesco director general Federico Mayor said that because of such realities, higher education is more than ever needed as a "watchtower, essential for looking ahead and providing people with vision".
At the same time, the gap between the industrialised and the developing countries is growing. The paper notes that the higher education gap between Africa and the rest of the world is "one of the most striking disparities in education today".
A young African's chance of pursuing higher education is 17 times lower than in industrialised countries and while more than half the young people in developed countries will get higher education at the turn of the century, fewer than than 10 per cent will have that chance in the developing world.
The paper appeals for increased academic solidarity and support for projects such as Unesco's Unitwin co-operation scheme and Unesco chairs, which it says could eventually be linked to form regional centres for advanced studies and research.
Unesco itself aims to raise investment in higher education by mobilising both public funds and also new funding from all who benefit from that education. But renewed public commitment must go hand-in-hand with reform of individual institutions and of entire higher education systems - what Unesco calls "a new covenant".
Public spending on higher education should be seen as an "investment in infrastructure", not as a burden. At the same time, higher education should achieve greater cost-effectiveness, ac-countability and relevance.
On the quality debate, the paper recommends further efforts to improve evaluation, but warns that quality assessment should not be used as a "way of restricting public funding" or be linked too closely to productivity indicators.
Nevertheless, it notes that "Institutions . . . which remove mediocrity and guarantee quality of teaching, research and service . . . stand a better chance in competition to obtain resources from the public and private sectors."
The paper acknowledges that the "sensitive" issue of tuition fees and other sources of alternative funding have to be faced and appeals for grants for the needy to be introduced to cushion the effect of fee-paying. It recalls the terms of Unesco's l960 convention which stipulates that higher education should be "made accessible to all on the basis of individual capacity".
"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", explained Marco Antonio Dias, director of the higher education division. "At the moment, the World Bank occupies the commanding heights of discourse and the matters which they address are the matters which concern governments.
Guy Neave, research director at the International Association of Universities, said: "On a number of issues where no solution would be acceptable to all member states, Unesco's new policy paper can only place the differing viewpoints side by side."
But the search for solutions is to continue. "The time is right. That is why I intend to convene a world meeting on higher education," Mr Mayor said.
Unesco has also set up an advisory group on higher education, chaired by Georges Haddad, the honorary president of the Sorbonne. Mr Mayor asked the group to discuss all aspects of higher education and especially mobilisation of resources.
Next autumn, the report of the commission on education for the 21st century, chaired by Jacques Delors, will submit its findings. It is expected to make new proposals for all areas of education.
Policy Paper for Change and Development in Higher Education: Unesco, 7 Place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP France.