Unesco sees merit in solar power

March 28, 1997

SOLAR POWER may not be the first thing to spring to mind when reflecting on how people can gain access to higher education.

But for Unesco, the United Nations agency for education, science and culture, greater commitment to the provision of solar power and other forms of renewable energy is an essential building block to extend access.

F+ederico Mayor, Unesco director general, says: "Solar energy plays a very important role. In areas without electricity, access on the basis of merit will not be a reality if we do not provide solar energy. We are making headway as there is far less opposition from oil-producing states."

Unesco is holding a world conference on higher education in September 1998 to coincide with celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 26 of the declaration states that access to higher education shall be equal for all on the basis of their corresponding merits.

In the run-up to the world conference Unesco is arranging a series of regional meetings.

Unesco's focus on solar energy is part of a strategy to bring universities in the poorest countries out of isolation by developing email, seeking space on under-utilised satellites, promoting the use of CD-Roms and interactive videos and developing the existing university twinning scheme, Unitwin, and Unesco chairs.

The Africa regional conference takes place in Dakar, Senegal, at the start of April. Georges Haddad, Sorbonne mathematician and former head of the university, says: "This meeting is essential. It will show if Unesco can mobilise on higher education."

Mr Mayor agrees. "One of the musts in Africa is for its universities to feel part of the international academic community. If we don't have particular initiatives in Africa, we'll fail," he says.

The themes of the conference are quality, relevance and international cooperation. The signs from the preparatory meetings are that the political will is there to tackle problems, such as why chronically bad conditions lead to a brain drain and the use of under-qualified academic staff.

Mr Haddad, who is chairing the steering committee preparing for the world conference, says that the European conference, to be held next September, will look at the shift from elitist education.

"Access must open up; there has to be a change from a hyper-protected, isolated system to one which must prove its merits. Evaluation and accountability are important aspects of this move away from elitism," he says.

The Europeans will look at regional case studies prepared by some 20 universities, including Birmingham University.

The first regional conference, for Latin America and the Caribbean, took place in Cuba last November. The meeting highlighted the strains on higher education in a region weathering economic crisis - massive rises in student enrolment, plummeting budgets and loss of the regulating role of the state.

Lifting the lid on years of frustration and decline, the meeting was called on to do everything: from ensuring free higher education to getting Unesco to run a permanent evaluation system to uphold quality.

That last request falls outside Unesco's mandate, according to its director general. "Evaluation must be carried out by academia itself. Unesco must never accept a role that is not ours. We can be the keepers of a principle but not a substitute for those who must apply it," Mr Mayor said.

Colin Power, Unesco's assistant director-general for education, said at a run-up meeting of non-government organisations: "We are worried about the increasing privatisation of universities and the growing inequality of access. Universities will become redundant if they don't face this challenge. They have more and more students but are they still universities when research is conducted in separate institutes and business runs its own courses and institutions?"

"My hope is that, at the end of the world conference, the universities of the world agree to observe half a dozen shared principles - it is amazing how mobilising some basic principles can be when they are given a new impetus," Mr Mayor said.

His own list includes merit as the main pillar of the university system, provision of higher education throughout life, institutional autonomy, neutrality, defence of freedom of expression and an ethical function through instances that can guide decision-makers.

Mr Mayor argues that it is time to claim higher education as a human right in the same way that claim was made for basic education years ago, "when we didn't dare say 'this applies to higher level learning too'". It is a right he wants to see enshrined in legislation around the world within ten years.

Looking at the UN body's own future, Mr Mayor would also like to see the rapid return of the United Kingdom and the United States to membership of the organisation. Although president Bill Clinton has confirmed twice in writing his "positive views on Unesco", explaining that the only problem was budgetary. The UK "remained silent" even through last year's 50th anniversary of the body, founded in London with the UK as the first state to ratify its constitution, recalled Mr Mayor.

"I felt that was undeserved. But on another level, Britain has never left. We have kept contacts, I've appointed British citizens when they were the best for a job, Britain still belongs to many Unesco-based programmes and activities."

There have been close contacts in recent months between Unesco and Tony Blair's shadow cabinet. Labour policy is for a return to Unesco where hopes are high that the prospect of no arrears, no conditions for re-entry and just a pro rata payment for the last months of 1997 might mean a Labour victory in May would be followed by a prompt return to the fold.

If both Britain and the US rejoin, Unesco's budget would increase by 25 per cent. Although the organisation has trimmed running and operational costs, big projects like the world conference on higher education are hampered by less-than-adequate funding.

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