The biggest international gathering on higher education ever took place in Paris last week. David Jobbins reports on how participants saw their role
Unesco's 182-member nations - and the United States - have adopted a world declaration on higher education for the 21st century and its accompanying framework for priority action, approving proposals for wide-ranging reforms to make higher education accessible to everyone on merit and calling for international solidarity.
More than 4,000 representatives, including 115 ministers of education or higher education, attended the five days of debates, commissions and plenary sessions that led to the unanimous vote in favour of the declaration on Friday afternoon.
The declaration states: "In a world undergoing rapid changes there is a perceived need for a new vision and paradigm of higher education, which should be student-orientated, calling in most countries for in-depth reforms and an open-access policy so as to cater for ever more diversified categories of people, and of its contents, methods, practices and means of delivery, based on new types of links and partnerships with the community and with the broadest sectors of society."
Unesco director-general Federico Mayor, a principal architect of the conference, said that for the first time, higher education must face radical, rapid and irreversible change while retaining its traditional intellectual and moral missions.
Mr Mayor said that while structures must be revised, new technologies made available and institutional aspects renewed, the basic preoccupation would be to "train the citizens of tomorrow's world to be independent, critical, versatile, creative - capable, in a word, to take up the multiple challenges with which the 21st century will not fail to confront them".
Higher education would prepare citizens to make best use of their freedom which would be the hallmark of the coming century. Mr Mayor said it was a coming of age of democracy "and democracy can come of age only with the help of higher education".
French prime minister Lionel Jospin called on higher education to draw inspiration from the earliest European universities and, during its current period of expansion, to increase international cooperation, especially with developing countries.
He said European universities of the 16th century were a source of intellectual activity, aiding social progress, technical evolution and economic development, a forum for confrontation of cultures that favoured mobility of people, ideas, discoveries and innovations.
But he warned that "every time it has become an ivory tower, the university has failed in its mission", and that institutions' academic freedom and autonomy were inseparable from their responsibilities towards society.
Accepting that higher education must adapt to the market, Mr Jospin rejected the "mercantile vision by which it could be determined by the marketplace".
University must first dispense knowledge and qualifications, he said, "but it is also a place of training in democracy, of citizenship and individual fulfilment".
Mr Jospin said that while new sources of finance could be sought, "like all Europeans I am attached to public service education, and therefore the vital state role, as guarantor of equality of opportunity, in funding". Fees should be set with concern for social equity, not to constitute a basic source of finance, he said.
The expansion of higher education was irreversible, said Mr Jospin. Mass higher education was a reality worldwide; while there had been 13 million students in 1960 and 82 million in 1995, there would be 100 million in 2025. Democracies should offer to all who merited them the studies to which they aspired.
International cooperation was vital for developing nations, said Mr Josp!n, who pointed out that France welcomes 120,000 foreign students every year.
He called for a policy of solidarity and increased North-South exchanges, while warning that those countries risked a brain drain if their students did not return home after their studies.
Speaking in advance of the closing ceremony, Mr Mayor said that consensus had been reached on almost everything, and that it proved there was a political will. "Because this political will exists, we will be able to say a few years from now that we found a new 'way' in higher education."
Andre Sonko, conference president and Senegalese education minister, said the central concern was the need for more cooperation. Colin Power, Unesco assistant director-general for education, said the declaration "captured the spirit of the issues" including lifelong education, the inclusion of people denied access to education and the need for education to redress poverty.
"Governments and institutions are insisting, and we are insisting, that higher education is part of a seamless web," said Mr Power. "Education is a system of interlinking paths and it is only as strong as its weakest link; you cannot develop primary education without good teacher training, without good research, and involvement of higher education in the improvement of education throughout."
Marco Antonio Dias, director of Unesco's higher education division, said that only a form of higher education that helped solve problems, ranging from the environment to exclusion to peace-building, could be considered one of quality.
Georges Haddad, conference steering committee chairman and honorary president of University of Paris I, told participants that the process was "of permanent vision and action to ensure higher education will be a pivotal issue at the dawn of the 21st century".
Suzy Halimi, former president of University of Paris III who acted as rapporteur-general, summed up: "Our world conference has brought together political presentations, specialised expertise, democratic participation and expressions of diverse cultural sensitivities around four major axes - pertinence, improvement of quality, management and funding of higher education with concern for justice and equity and, finally, international cooperation."