A Global Agenda

Attendees at Unesco World Conference on Higher Education, the second such gathering, will discuss "new dynamics" and persistent challenges -- including expanding access and combating degree mills.
July 2, 2009

Paris will be the center of global higher education next week, as more than 1,000 scholars and government officials, including about 100 ministers or vice ministers, descend on the city for the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education: The New Dynamics of Higher Education and Research for Societal Change and Development.

“The first question is what are these new dynamics? I think there are many, but there are four in particular that we really think are changing the face of higher education,” said Nicholas Burnett, assistant director-general for education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is sponsoring the world conference -- the second such gathering. The first occurred in 1998.

“In no particular order – and they’re all linked – one is just the accelerating demand for higher education. In the last seven years, we’ve just had extraordinary expansion” – with an increase of about 51 million postsecondary students from 2001-8.

“The second point is the diversification,” said Burnett. “In the U.S., a mix of public and private education is very common; in some other parts of the world that has not been so -- but is becoming so. Private higher education has been by far the fastest-growing component since the last conference, and globally speaking, something like 30 percent of all enrollments are now in the private sector.”

The third and fourth dynamics are the impacts of information and communications technologies on higher education, and globalization. “Not just globalization as a phenomenon, but globalization within higher education," Burnett said, citing, as examples, the development of offshore branch campuses and increases in the numbers of joint degree programs.

“The world of higher education, looked at globally, is significantly different that it was 11 years ago at the time of the last conference," Burnett said.

Yet, when it comes to equity and access – issues that were at the top of the agenda for the 1998 conference -- not enough has changed, Burnett said. “It remains the case, despite the growth in students that I mentioned, that still only 6 percent of the relevant age group is enrolled in higher education in Africa.” In South and West Asia, the figure is 11 percent.

Meanwhile, in all countries, “It remains the case, [again] despite this huge expansion, that the bulk of higher education students come from the better-off proportions of the population. What can be done in all countries to increase the participation in higher education of those who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds?”

“That to me is the major unfinished area” – and will likely, Burnett said, be a major theme of the 2009 conference, too.

Jill Biden, a community college professor and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is leading the U.S. delegation and will speak about the role of community colleges in U.S. higher education. Scheduled speakers at the conference, which starts Sunday, include Danilo Türk, the president of Slovenia, Dame Pearlette Louisy, the governor general of St. Lucia, and Nahas Angula, the prime minister of Namibia.

Unesco plans to produce a written document based on the conference proceedings, and a draft communiqué, to be revised based on the conference discussions and debates, is already available online. "It's quite possible that the wording of this thing could change quite a lot. I think it's quite unlikely that the topics would change," Burnett said of the document.

The draft document, which grew out of discussions at six regional meetings leading up to next week's world gathering, includes a statement with 33 items divided under the following subheads: the Social Responsibility of Higher Education, the Social Commitment to Higher Education and Major Global Challenges; Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa; Internationalization, Regionalization and Globalization; Access, Equity and Quality; and Learning, Research and Innovation.

Among the (draft) action items for member states are “to scale up teacher education,” “to promote internationalization that balances cooperation and competition, represents an appropriate blend of local and cross-border provision and is imbued with ethical values,” and “to enhance the attractiveness of the academic career by ensuring respect for the rights and adequate working conditions of academic staff.”

Combating degree mills – a major thrust for Unesco -- “through a multi-pronged attack at national and international levels,” is also listed as an action item in the draft document.


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