NEW YORK CITY -- University leaders from approximately 80 countries gathered for the triennial International Association of University Presidents conference this weekend. Topics of discussion included access, quality and quality assurance, the creation of partnerships, trends in learning technology, and the role of higher education in conflict resolution.
“This is an organization that seeks to facilitate education as a solution,” said J. Michael Adams, the new president of IAUP and president of Fairleigh Dickinson University, in New Jersey. “Give me a problem and I will tell you the solution: the solution is education.”
To take one example, in a presentation on Sunday, Chan-Mo Park, chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology -- a new, English-language university founded in North Korea in 2009 and staffed by foreign faculty -- stressed the opportunities for engaging with North Korea in science and technology. Park, who previously was a college president in South Korea, crossed the border in retirement, believing that engagement with North Korea is crucial for fostering peace. His goals for the institution – and the country -- are nothing if not ambitious. “What we are trying to do is make Pyongyang University of Science and Technology globalized and through that globalize North Korea.”
Park presented as part of a panel on increasing access. The panel also featured the presidents of two Australian universities, who discussed strategies for increasing enrollments of students of low socioeconomic status.
“Some of the issues we face are the same as those of other regional institutions,” said Greg Hill, vice-chancellor and president of the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia’s newest public university, founded in 1996 and located about an hour’s drive outside of Brisbane. The university has grown its enrollment from 500 to more than 8,000 since its founding, and has plans to again double in size. Half its students are the first in their families to attend college.
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“One of our challenges is aspiration,” said Hill. Whereas 43.8 percent of students in Brisbane go directly from high school to university, on the Sunshine Coast that figure is 30.3 percent. Another 12.4 percent of high school students on the Sunshine Coast defer, compared to 5.3 percent in Brisbane, a disparity that Hill said was likely due to financial pressures. “If you add it up, relatively the situation isn’t that bad” – 42.7 percent of Sunshine Coast high school students go straight to university or defer enrollment – “but there’s still a long way to go.”
Sunshine Coast  has a dual enrollment program, which allows high school students to take university courses, and has seen particular success with its six-month Tertiary Preparation Pathway, designed for students who lack the qualifications or preparation to start a degree program right away. Students enrolled in the program take a mix of courses in academic skills and their desired area of study. They do not pay fees – the Australian government funds the program – and they do not receive credit toward a degree. If they successfully complete the pathway they are guaranteed admission into a public university (although not necessarily into the program of their choice). About 25 to 35 percent of students don’t complete it, but of those who do, 45 percent enroll at Sunshine Coast. Another 40 percent enroll in other Australian public universities, mostly in Brisbane. The pathway program has grown dramatically since the university started it in 2006, and now enrolls more than 1,000 students. “This is one of the ways we’re demystifying university,” Hill said.
As Peter Dawkins, vice chancellor and president of Victoria University, explained, Australia is in the midst of a push to increase its proportion of students from the lowest economic quartile. Currently these students make up 16.2 percent of higher education enrollments nationally, and the goal is to bring that proportion to 20 percent by 2020. Dawkins, who before coming to the university oversaw the public school system in the state of Victoria, emphasized the importance of collaborating with K-12 schools.
Cracking the Glass Ceiling
Presidents also discussed the importance of working toward equity in their own ranks. On Saturday a panel of women rectors from Europe discussed the continuing gender imbalances in university leadership. Maria Helena Nazaré’s experience is perhaps indicative.
“I am living proof that the ceiling is breaking because I was elected president of the European University Association,” said Nazaré, the former rector of Aveiro University, in Portugal. Elected in April, she will serve as the EUA’s first female president,  beginning in March 2012.
However, Nazaré continued, it is not all happy news. Fewer than 10 percent of rectors in the association are women. In her own country, she was the first woman rector and, since stepping down, “apparently so far the last one.”
Panelists stressed that the underrepresentation of women in the presidency is not just a “women’s issue” but a problem that should concern everyone involved in higher education. “If we do not have an equal share of women in leadership positions it means that somewhere along the way we are wasting talent,” said Nazaré. “And we cannot afford it.”’
Gülsün SaÄŸlamer, the former rector -- and first female rector -- of Istanbul Technical University, presented European Commission data on the so-called “leaky pipeline.”  While women outnumber men at the undergraduate level, only 18 percent of full professors in Europe are women. In science and engineering, women make up 31 percent of undergraduate enrollments, and 11 percent of full professors. Throughout the European Union only 13 percent of higher education institutions are led by women. Norway is the leading nation in the E.U. in this regard, with 32 percent female representation.
In response to these disparities, the panelists have organized several conferences; the third European Women Rectors Forum is scheduled for May 2012 in Istanbul. They stressed the importance of mentoring programs and of recruiting male colleagues as fellow champions in the cause. Christina Ullenius, chair of the governing board at Lulea University of Technology and former rector of Karlstad University, in Sweden, described the need to develop policies and programs that identify, develop, advance and support women researchers, in order to create a change in the broader academic culture. Ullenius cited, by way of a successful example, Sweden’s VINNMER  program, which awards generous three-year research grants to researchers who are of the “underrepresented gender” in their fields. After three years, Ullenius said, they have funded 105 women researchers – who, she explained, have been able to raise their profiles in their respective fields, expanding their networks and launching new projects with international colleagues. Six recipients have been promoted to full professors.
“It legitimizes them to receive this support,” Ullenius said. “They have been seen, and they have been recognized.”
The IAUP triennial concludes today.