8 July 2009The World Conference on Higher Education on 5-7 July 2009, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris brought together some 1,000 participants from around 150 countries, including over 60 Ministers of Education, to discuss the new dynamics of higher education and research for societal change and development. “The field of higher education is going through no less than a revolution”, Mr Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO’s Director-eneral said in his opening speech, outlining four dynamics that are transforming higher education:
The first is accelerating demand, with an additional 51 million new students enrolled in tertiary education worldwide since 2000.
- The second is the diversification of providers, with private higher education now accounting for more than 30 per cent of enrolments worldwide.
- The third is the impact of information and communication technologies on all aspects of learning, from delivering courses and knowledge sharing to collaboration on research projects and facilitating access to educational resources free of charge.
- The fourth is globalization, which is reflected in the growing number of students studying outside of their home countries, in universities establishing branch campuses and off-shore academic programmes, and partnering with universities in other countries to set up degree programmes.
Turning to the implications of these trends, Mr Matsuura put the spotlight on three key challenges:
First, the equity challenge. “Despite the explosive growth in student numbers, mass higher education is far from being a reality. Tertiary enrolments remain relatively low across the developing world. Even in countries where enrolment is high, inequalities persist”, the Director-General said, urging governments to introduce special measures to help disadvantaged and marginalized groups participate in higher education.
- The second challenge, Mr Matsuura said, was how to assure quality in today’s global and diversified context. “Quality assurance has as much to do with protecting students from fraudulent providers as with recognizing qualifications across borders and ensuring that students successfully graduate”, he underscored, highlighting examples of UNESCO’s action and partnerships in this field. The Director-General also signalled the importance of attracting and retaining qualified higher education teaching personnel, and providing them with adequate working conditions.
Finally, Mr Matsuura highlighted the importance of institutional cooperation and networking. “Higher education cannot prosper without the sharing of knowledge”, he said, welcoming the expansion of initiatives aimed at encouraging international mobility and creating regional higher education areas and knowledge hubs. The Director-General stated that such initiatives were important in reducing inequalities between countries, regions and groups and in fostering a sense of shared social responsibility.
“We share a mutual interest in developing vibrant inclusive higher education systems. […] Such systems have the potential to promote peace, international understanding and cooperation. This Conference offers us a landmark opportunity to put into action our collective responsibility and ambition to make higher education in all regions a driver of development and international understanding in this second decade of the 21st century,” Mr Matsuura said in conclusion.
These themes were reiterated by other speakers, all of whom underscored the strategic role of higher education in finding solutions to today’s leading challenges.
Equity, quality – in particular the need to bridge the disconnect between education and the world of work, and the importance of strengthening international cooperation were highlighted as critical challenges for all countries, in particular those in the developing world.
Strong emphasis was also given to the need to reinforce the contribution of higher education to economic growth and development, especially at this time of global crisis, and to building societies that are more equal, cohesive and tolerant.
Speakers welcomed the UNESCO Conference as a unique opportunity for all major stakeholders to come together to address these challenges and define the way forward.