The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development  (OECD) is an important part of the ‘learning machinery’ that both sheds light on and guides higher education reform. While this international organization does not have jurisdictional authority over higher education regulations and practices within nation states, it does has a unique capacity to conduct research, generate debates, benchmark, provide advice, convene, and respond to the expressed needs of its member states.
A case in point is the annual Education at a Glance  report that the OECD issues every September. And the Education at a Glance  report is just that – a report – yet a report that many governments feel a need to both support (via data provision) yet respond to (and quickly!) when the report’s findings highlight potentially significant weaknesses in their higher education systems.
Needless to say, the context in which higher education reform is being undertaken will shape the agenda of organizations like the OECD. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the impact of the economic crisis upon higher education systems and practices is high up on the list of priorities for the OECD’s Directorate for Education .
For example, the OECD’s Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education  (IMHE) is sponsoring a conference this week titled Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly. Doing More with Less  (Paris, 13-15 September 2010). While over 400 people will be attending the event, the majority of us can engage with the conference via:
- The conference programme  and 42 pp discussion paper .
- A live conference webcast (13-15 September) which will provide on-demand feeds after the event ends.
- An active line-up of conference blogs  via the OECD’s educationtoday  site.
- A new (as of 15 September) social media project called Raise Your Hand  which seeks the views of all education stakeholders to a single question: “What is the most important action we need to take in education today?”.
One of the interesting dimensions of the OECD that I struggle to convey to my (American) undergraduate students is that the OECD is ‘our’ organization, not (as a surprising number of them think) an autonomous free agent running amok on the roads towards global government or corporate hegemony. Rather, it is an international organization that member states pay for and direct, primarily via membership on the OECD Council.
"The Secretariat in Paris is made up of some 2 500 staff who support the activities of committees, and carry out the work in response to priorities decided by the OECD Council. The staff includes economists, lawyers, scientists and other professionals."
The Directorate for Education  works hard to ensure that initiatives it is involved in are framed such that they generate practical and important outcomes for actual institutions (including governments and universities).
Learning via OECD initiatives and products (events, reports, missions/consultancies, etc.) are increasingly focusing in on issues that are hugely important to universities given the changing nature of the knowledge-based economy, and the rising importance of innovation, at a variety of scales, to socio-economic development. Moreover, the OECD is very open about its role in shaping policy reform agendas to more effectively manage the globalization process. As the OECD notes :
"The [analytical focus] matrix is moving from consideration of each policy area within each member country to analysis of how various policy areas interact with each other, across countries and even beyond the OECD area. How social policy affects the way economies operate, for example. Or how globalisation will change the world's economies by opening new perspectives for growth, or perhaps trigger resistance manifested in protectionism. As it opens to many new contacts around the world, the OECD will broaden its scope, looking ahead to a post-industrial age in which it aims to tightly weave OECD economies into a yet more prosperous and increasingly knowledge-based world economy."
This explains, for example, the OECD’s role in policy work on cross-border higher education, the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes  (AHELO) programme, the Bologna process, and so on.
In closing, events like IMHE’s Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing More with Less are windows into the OECD’s architecture, its modus operandi, as well as tangible events that bring together key thinkers about the globalisation of higher education: for these reasons the conference is worth exploring, if only on a virtual level.
More importantly, we need to engage with these types of international organizations, their component parts (e.g., IMHE, an organization that universities can join ), and their events, for they are our inventions. We really don't have many inter-governmental (yet open to other stakeholders) 'learning machines', and the challenges are such that we can certainly benefit from more informed debate and strategic planning!