'An Academic Revolution'

At the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, the second such gathering convened by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (the first was in 1998), panelists on Monday discussed the implications of global trends in higher education before ceding the floor for a four-hour roundtable discussion on higher education in Africa, specifically.

July 7, 2009

At the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, the second such gathering convened by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (the first was in 1998), panelists on Monday discussed the implications of global trends in higher education before ceding the floor for a four-hour roundtable discussion on higher education in Africa, specifically.

More than 1,000 participants, including about 100 ministers or vice ministers of education, are in Paris this week to grapple with the global trends that are the conference themes, including the increasing demand for higher education, diversification of higher education sectors, impacts of information and communication technologies on education and research, globalization, and issues of access and equity. Philip G. Altbach, professor and director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, presented Monday on a trend report prepared by the center at UNESCO’s request. The report is titled “Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution.”

“It became clear to us that we are indeed in the middle of an almost unprecedented revolution in higher education -- not just small changes around the edges, but fundamental changes. And our job in the trend report -- and I think in this conference as well -- is to try to understand and then deal with, in constructive ways, the nature of this revolution. It’s different, ladies and gentlemen, from what’s gone on before,” Altbach said during a plenary session on Trends in Global Higher Education Monday (the plenary sessions are being Web cast).

In terms of the specific trends, “We all know most of them, but I don’t think in many ways we fully understand the depth and breadth of these issues,” Altbach said. Take the increasing demand for higher education, for instance: “At the last UNESCO World Conference, just a decade ago, there were about 100 million students enrolled in all aspects of postsecondary education around the globe. Now there are somewhere around 150 million. One of the key elements of this revolution is what we call massification, which has profound and deep implications for everything that we do.”

“We have been talking here about quality but in some ways, some fundamental ways, mass higher education and quality are principles, are factors, which are in conflict with one another. And if we can figure out, as countries, as regions, as a global academic community, how to reconcile the two, we will have made very considerable progress. In my view, not so easy.”

Altbach also pointed to the huge growth of private higher education -- 30 percent of enrollments globally are now in private institutions -- and the privatization of public universities, which are increasingly being asked to generate their own funding. He cited, too, strains on academic staffing that have come about as a consequence of massification: “The rise of part-time academics, decreased average qualifications for academics in many parts of the world, a tremendous strain on the work life of the professoriate, are all realities that we need to understand, deal with and hopefully ameliorate. Because without a committed academic profession, we will not have successful higher education institutions.”

John Daniel, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning, an intergovernmental organization focused on open and distance learning, picked up on another conference theme: the promise of transformative technologies. He framed his remarks Monday in terms of “breaking out of the iron triangle” -- the triangle's sides being access, quality and cost. Throughout history, people have wanted to stretch the triangle to give greater access, at higher quality, at lower cost, “But you can’t,” he said. “Try improving quality with better learning resources and the cost will go up. Try cutting costs and you will endanger both access and quality.

“The iron triangle has hindered the expansion of education throughout history. It has created in the public mind and probably in your own thinking an insidious link between quality and exclusivity.”

Yet, Daniel argued, “Technology can transform the iron triangle into a flexible triangle. By using technology, you can achieve higher access, higher quality and lower cost all at the same time. This is a revolution; it's never happened before,” he said, citing the success of open universities (like the Indira Gandhi National Open University, in India), and the recent “technological breakthrough” of open educational resources -- Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare is perhaps the most famous example.

'To Accelerate Africa's Development'

In the roundtable on African higher education, however, Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s minister of higher education and training, lamented the continent’s overall status as a consumer of knowledge, as opposed to a producer. “Over the last few decades, some things have not changed. There’s been no significant break in relations of knowledge production between the colonial and post-colonial eras. African universities are essentially consumers of knowledge produced in developed countries,” he said.

“Virtually all partnerships tend to be one-sided. This is not only negative for the African continent, but we believe it also deprives global higher education of access to the indigenous knowledge of Africa,” Nzimande said.

Nahas Angula, Namibia’s prime minister, spoke of the need to “reconfigure” knowledge and apply it to “the reality of the ordinary citizens of Africa.”

“How could the application of knowledge end poverty and hunger in Africa? How could higher education empower women and promote gender equity? How can knowledge be considered in the African context to address child mortality and improve maternal health?” asked Angula, who argued for a need to create a cadre of knowledge workers "who are able to reconfigure knowledge and make it available to certain situations and contexts. Knowledge workers are problem identifiers, they are problem solvers and problem brokers."

About 15 speakers presented their views during the roundtable on “Promoting Excellence to Accelerate Africa’s Development: Towards an African Higher Education and Research Area.” In keeping with Altbach’s discussion of massification, Goolam Mohamedbhai, the secretary general for the Association of African Universities, cited “the paradox of Africa.” While postsecondary enrollments remain extremely low on the continent -- only 6 percent of the relevant age group is enrolled, according to UNESCO’s figures -- demand for higher education is nonetheless increasing dramatically, straining the higher education system. “Because of improvements at the primary and secondary education levels, the demand for higher education will continue to increase,” Mohamedbhai said.

“There is a need to have differentiated institutions,” he said, adding still: “The increasing demand for higher education will never be met by traditional face-to-face education alone.” Online learning will be one avenue, he said, as will cross-border education (branch campuses and the like). “They must be supported but also properly regulated and it must be ensured that they do not weaken the existing public institutions.”

The introduction of tuition or student fees (in countries with traditions of free higher education) is politically unpalatable, he said, but “they are inevitable, and have been put in place in many African countries.” At the same time, he cautioned that the adoption of parallel programs -- in which public universities accept a set number of state-supported students into popular programs, and then take additional students who can enroll only if they pay full freight themselves – should be adopted “with great caution," as they create friction between the full-paying and state-supported students, and can jeopardize quality, he said.

Mohamedbhai also cited the challenge of training sufficient numbers of faculty to respond to expanding demand. “This begs the question as to whether all academics need to have a Ph.D. If Africa creates differentiated institutions, could not the academics in [some] institutions be required to have only a master's in their field of specialization? This is an issue that needs to be considered.”

Mohamedbhai, and many others, brought up the associated, but even bigger, problem of brain drain, and the migration of talent out of Africa. “Far too many students are leaving their countries to study elsewhere,” said Nzimande, of South Africa, who also said African universities need to do a better job of providing for academic freedom.

“Governments through the ministers of education need to begin to take this issue seriously and to be sure that academic freedom is guaranteed. However, while it is true that academic freedom is under threat, it must also be balanced by accountability,” he said.

Other Conference Occurrences

Also on Monday, UNESCO released the 2009 edition of its Global Education Digest, tracking trends in student mobility. The report finds that in 2007, more than 2.8 million students enrolled in colleges outside their countries of origin, a 53 percent increase from 1999. The "mobile students" are broadening their range of destinations -- in 1999, one in four studied in the United States; in 2007, the figure was one in five.

Students are increasingly staying within their regions of origin, the report notes. In East Asia and the Pacific, 42 percent of mobile students stayed within the region in 2007, compared to 36 percent in 1999. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 23 percent of mobile students stayed in the region in 2007, up from 11 percent in 1999.

Per the issues of brain drain discussed during Monday's roundtable, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest outbound mobility rate -- 5.8 percent, compared to a world average of 1.8 percent.

Also this week, Microsoft and UNESCO announced the formation of a joint task force on higher education and information and communication technology.

The World Conference on Higher Education continues through Wednesday.


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