Public Good, Private Money

World Conference on Higher Education concludes, with government officials from Brazil and India taking up issues of access and branch campuses, respectively.
July 9, 2009

The World Conference on Higher Education ended in Paris Wednesday, after several days spent discussing challenges and opportunities posed by the explosive growth in global demand for higher education, advances in information and communication technologies, and globalization. More than 1,000 participants, including about 100 ministers or vice ministers of education, attended the conference, the second such gathering convened by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (the first was in 1998).

“I think we all agree that there is a need to extend and increase our social investment in higher education, especially in terms of ensuring access and equity. Higher education forges national identity, it contributes to local development, it enhances citizenship and it fights inequalities,” Fernando Haddad, Brazil’s minister of education, said Wednesday. His own country has experienced the dramatic expansion in higher education enrollments discussed repeatedly during the conference proceedings: The number of students enrolled in Brazil's higher education system tripled from 2 million in 1997, Haddad said, to 6 million in 2007.

A trend in global higher education has been the introduction of tuition and fees in countries where higher education was formerly free. Haddad cautioned against this trend in his remarks, however. In countries like Brazil where inequities are large, “one must make sure that access to graduate education and higher education should, as far as possible, be free. There should be no fees, enrollment fees payable, because it’s got to be seen as a public good.

“Many public resources have been spent on arms, and now much money, trillions of dollars, are being poured into banks, to overcome the crisis and to save us from junk bonds, from toxic assets. I believe that low-quality education is as deleterious, is as bad for our society, as our toxic assets,” Haddad said.

The very first numbered item in the conference communiqué, adopted by conference participants by consensus Wednesday, in fact describes higher education as a public good, one that “is the responsibility of all stakeholders, especially governments.” The document also states, however, that while education is a public good, “private financing should be encouraged. While every effort must be made to increase public funding of higher education, it must be recognized that public funds are limited and may not be able to fully cater for the rapidly developing sector.”

While the growth in private higher education was another major theme of the conference (30 percent of enrollments worldwide are now in the private sector), so too was the need for effective government regulation.

The communiqué also addresses issues of internationalization, regionalization and globalization, including the development of branch campuses and other modes of delivering education across borders. The document stipulates that "cross-border provision of higher education" can, on the one hand, “make a significant contribution to higher education provided it offers quality education, promotes academic values, relevance, and respects the basic principles of dialogue and cooperation, mutual recognition and respect for human rights, diversity and national sovereignty." On the other hand, the document states, cross-border provision “can also create opportunities for fraudulent and low-quality providers of higher education that need to be counteracted.”

India’s new minister of human resource development, Kapil Sibal, also spoke Wednesday; Sibal is a proponent of opening up India’s higher education system to foreign investment, telling the Times of India in June, for instance, "When the demand exists, why should we send our children out? Foreign universities can come at our doorstep; India has the potential to become a global provider of quality graduates."

Speaking Wednesday at the UNESCO conference, Sibal said, “My proposition, which I want to place before this august assembly today, is that the time has come, like in manufacturing and the service sector, in the area of education, for institutions to reach for students rather than students reaching for institutions.”

Take Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cambridge, Oxford, he said: “If you were to set up centers of those very institutions in that part of the world which has surplus workforce, which has surplus young people who need to be educated and who don’t have access to those institutions, you could actually bring to the fore masses of young people who receive education at a relatively low cost but at global standards, just as in manufacturing. You have outsourced manufacturing practices because you want to contribute a product to the world at global standards at the lowest possible cost. Why not in education?”


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