Higher education: vision and action for the coming century - Marco Antonio Rodrigues Días
All analysts are agreed that the second half of the twentieth century will go down in the history of education as a period when higher education expanded all over the world, when exceptional qualitative changes took place in higher education systems and when the reduction in resources entailed significant adjustments to the organization of institutions and systems and constant questioning of the way in which they functioned and performed their task.
The events of May 1968 in the countries of Europe and in a number of countries on other continents marked the end of a period when higher education, and universities in particular, could be reserved for elites and not regard contributing to finding answers to the major problems of society as being their chief priority. The changes were so many and varied that even to define higher education became a challenging task. Taking a pragmatic point of view, we understand by higher education all types of education (university-level, vocational, technical, artistic, teacher training, distance and so on) provided by universities, institutes of technology, teacher-training colleges and similar institutions that are normally reserved for students who have completed their secondary education and who wish to obtain a qualification, degree, diploma or higher education certificate.1
It can be seen from an analysis of trends in higher education establishments over the past thirty years that the basic tasks of higher education are, and will remain, linked to four main objectives:
In addition, as a result of their deep-seated links with society, higher education institutions are, by their nature, under an obligation to adapt continuously to social trends; in other words, they live in a state of permanent crisis.
This has recently been intensified by the increasing pace of change in social structures, of which globalization (as an external factor) is one of the important aspects, and the fact that higher education itself is having to contend with the need for radical internal change as a result of the explosive situation caused by the growth in numbers (students, teachers and administrators), the increase in costs and the cutback in public funding.
By way of example, total average expenditure per student in 1995 was reported as being US$3,370 in constant dollars, compared with US$2,011 in 1985 and the number of teachers, which stood at 4 million in 1980, had risen to 6 million in 1995. The diversification of programmes, funding sources and organizational models is not only a trend but also a necessity if the system is to cater to varied and differentiated social needs.
All this might suggest that the decision taken by the Director-General of UNESCO in 1996 to announce officially the idea of organizing a worldwide conference on higher education was rather ambitious. The purpose of this conference would be to lay down the fundamental principles that would serve, on an international scale, as a basis for in-depth reforms of higher education systems throughout the world. These reforms would make a significant contribution to the construction of peace and development founded on equity, justice, solidarity and freedom. This would entail granting higher education institutions autonomy and freedom for which they would be held accountable.
A whole programme is encapsulated in this one paragraph. However, if the participants in the World Conference take different principles as their basis and do not adopt a social, cultural and humanistic approach, as the Director-General of UNESCO would like, they are liable—and this is not the only danger—to refer to a different agenda and revert to openly elitist proposals such as were made prior to 1968.
The risk is all the greater in that the Director-General decided that the conference would be prefaced by a widespread mobilization of ideas gathered in five regional conferences, themselves preceded by subregional conferences, national meetings, in-depth studies and joint analyses with non-governmental organizations. The regional conferences were held in Havana in November 1996 (Latin America and the Caribbean), Dakar in April 1997 (Africa), Tokyo in July 1997 (Asia and the Pacific), Palermo in September 1997 (Europe) and Beirut in March 1998 (Arab States).
The results of these conferences, which confirm the validity of the Director-General's proposals, together with the studies carried out by some fifty organizations in preparation for a series of thematic debates for the World Conference, have served as a basis for the conference working document, the draft Declaration and Action Plan and this paper, which has been specially prepared for Prospects as a contribution to the debate on the subjects to be discussed at the World Conference.
Solution to global problems
In 1995, UNESCO published a Policy paper for change and development in higher education, the importance of which was recognized in the worldwide development of societies. The regional conferences leading up to the World Conference on Higher Education have confirmed that we are now facing global problems that call for solutions to be applied worldwide, even though in every region there are major divergences in the economic, social, cultural and political spheres—which have an effect on higher education.
As we come to the end of the twentieth century, there are still flagrant inequalities in higher education that are both the outcome and the cause of a growing gap between the rich industrialized countries and the so-called developing countries. These inequalities are noticeable when the enrolment ratios for the 18-23-year-old cohort are analysed in terms of the number of students per 100,000 inhabitants.
Whereas in 1991, according to UNESCO's policy paper, this figure was over 5,000 in North America and over 2,500 in almost all the other developed countries, there were fewer than 100 students per 100,000 inhabitants in sub-Saharan Africa, which means that the young people of that region had seventeen times less chance of going on to higher education than those of the industrialized developed countries. Thus, one of the first lessons to be drawn from these preparatory conferences seems to be that an analysis of the situation in higher education must make reference to the various models of society.
Moreover, one of the aspects underscored by all the regional conferences concerns the need to deal with the education system as a whole. The universalization of primary and secondary education is imperative and is essential to the democratization of higher education. Secondary education should no longer be regarded as only preparation for higher education. It must also be capable of training young people for working life and must, moreover, be of a high standard if we are to ensure that those with secondary school leaving certificates will be successful in their chosen careers or capable of taking part in higher education courses.
Attention was also drawn to the need to ensure that young people's access to higher education is not restricted on grounds of their financial situation, gender, language, origin or political or religious convictions. Students' merit, ability and motivation should be the only grounds for determining whether or not they should have access to higher education.
A decline in quality was noted in a large number of institutions. Drop-out rates in higher education are still high, although the statistics are not always reliable. These comments point to a need for large-scale, concerted and resolute action focused on clearly defined goals.
Globalization and new technologies
It is also important to situate these actions in the context of a world undergoing change, in which globalization has both positive and negative aspects that have to be taken into account when the time comes to define higher education policies. In reality, major world trends are characterized by a series of convergent and sometimes contradictory processes: as defined in UNESCO's policy paper, these are democratization, globalization, regionalization, polarization, marginalization and fragmentation, all of which have an impact on the development of higher education and call for appropriate responses.
Globalization—for better or worse—is consolidated by the extraordinary invasion of higher education by new technologies, especially the Internet. The development of communication and information technologies:
There are an increasing number of university networks of this kind all over the world, and the use of computers in the learning process, access to the Internet by students as a vehicle for self-directed learning, educational broadcasting and video-conferencing are all being stepped up.
The impression gained from the discussions and statements at the regional conferences is that the trend is gaining pace and it looks as if institutions will, in the future, be competing to attract the most capable students. When students choose a particular institution, they will not be looking to see whether it is public or private or whether or not it has a long-standing tradition. They will look at the prospects offered by the courses provided for taking their place in society. Those familiar with computers will be on the lookout for teachers who are competent in a particular field but who are also familiar with information technology.
This trend can be observed all over the world in the growing number of projects for virtual universities that know how to benefit from a method that has the following advantages:
However, the debates leading up to the World Conference have shown that the new technologies are not a remedy for all problems and, in fact, entail some risks. In the 1970s, many discussions focused on two different approaches in higher education establishments: those that were student-focused and those that were partially or exclusively content-oriented and which regarded knowledge of teaching methods and teacher-training as serving no useful purpose.
In practical terms, there is a risk of a return to this situation with the development of the Internet and its use by institutions bound by franchise agreements, whereby whole packages are sent out from a transmitter (an institution in a developed country) to receivers (institutions or students) that are passive recipients in developing countries.
The new technologies are therefore a key factor in the current development of higher education, but here again technology does not solve the basic problems, which are still bound up with the task of higher education in a world undergoing rapid change. Even so, some movement was seen in the analysis of this question as the regional conferences proceeded.
In the final analysis, it now seems to be generally acknowledged that these technologies have to be enlisted in the service of the educational process, as well as of progress in research. They must also contribute to more effective management of higher education systems. Higher education policies therefore have to ensure that higher education is made available to everybody throughout life and that its services benefit every individual, whatever their situation: part-time studies, distance education, short courses and indeed, if necessary, self-directed learning. The establishments concerned should work together on the definition and formulation of programmes.
Relevance and quality
Technology has to be at the service and disposal of human beings, as well as help higher education institutions to transpose their tasks into practical reality.
It is true that higher education has to aim at quality and that internal and external evaluation methods should be more generally applied, thereby enabling it to be accountable to society. However, it has to be borne in mind that what makes higher education attain a high quality is its relevance, in other words its efforts to find solutions to pressing social problems, in particular those connected with peace-building, peace-keeping and sustainable development. This goal requires the active participation of all the parties concerned (the media, parliamentarians, the production sector and so on) in actions to prevent social exclusion and in efforts to protect the environment. Institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential to the fulfilment of this social goal.
In spite of the variety of situations encountered, the participants in the regional conferences called consistently (in the light of the considerations set out above) for higher education institutions to train citizens capable of thinking clearly, analysing problems, making choices and shouldering their responsibilities. These principles, on which there was consensus, have practical applications in the everyday life of such institutions. They have to form partnerships with the world of work but at the same time set their long-term policies in the light of social needs, avoiding a short-term approach and disregarding certain undertakings' immediate needs.
Similarly, the ethical role of these institutions has never been as important as it is at the present time. The regional conferences were right to stress the fact that cultural values and the social and historical situation specific to each country have to be taken into consideration when education programmes are being designed.
These aims cannot be achieved unless the teaching staff has a status that is recognized by all concerned, and in particular by the authorities of each state— whence the importance attached to the implementation of the Recommendation concerning the status of higher-education teaching personnel approved by the General Conference in November 1997—and unless teachers have academic freedom and institutions likewise have autonomy.
The question of access and democratization remains fundamental and was discussed by all the regional conferences. The most recent statistics specially compiled for the World Conference on Higher Education show that:
It can be seen, therefore, that there has been a very real improvement in access to higher education, but that the imbalances between regions still exist and are sometimes growing worse, while references are made to inequalities of various kinds within the systems themselves.
Merit without discrimination
In the case of women, the figures given in the World statistical outlook on higher education: 1980-1995 (UNESCO, forthcoming) speak for themselves. From 1980 to 1985, the intake of female students in higher education increased at an annual rate of 4%, compared with a 3% annual increase for male students. Worldwide, the proportion of women in higher education grew from 44% in 1980 to 47% in 1995. It is remarkable that all the regions shared in the rise in this average. From 1995 onwards, enrolments in North America, Europe and the countries in transition were generally balanced between the genders. Latin America and the Caribbean countries came close to equilibrium in higher education. They recorded a female enrolment ratio of 49% in 1995. The countries in transition, in which a balance between male and female students was as early as 1980, succeeded in maintaining this balance from 1980 to 1995. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia and the least developed countries generally, the proportion of women among all students continued to be low, at 35, 34 and 27% respectively. Even so, since 1980 the proportion of female students in each of these regions has risen. It is not surprising, therefore, that discussions on the gender issue should now be shifting towards increased participation of women in careers that were regarded until only recently as being reserved for men—such as engineering—and to increased representation of women in management posts.
These factors and lines of thinking led the participants in the regional conferences to agree that discrimination due to gender, race or a person's financial situation is not acceptable, thereby reaffirming the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention against Discrimination in Education. On several occasions Federico Mayor, the Director-General of UNESCO, has focused on the need to move from elitism to the recognition of merit. Merit, ability and motivation are acknowledged as being the basic criteria for a policy ensuring equitable access to higher education. In addition, the access of young people to initial training naturally highlights the links that higher education has with the education system as a whole and with the system's capacity to train young people and determine their future options according to their abilities and in the light of their aspirations. Lifelong access to higher education, coupled with the key question of the partnership between such education and all sectors of cultural and economic activity, will make it necessary to recognize knowledge acquired from experience. This will make it possible for all those who have not had an opportunity to attend proper tertiary-level training at a normal age eventually to have access to it.
In deciding to organize a World Conference, UNESCO wished to embark on a process for improving the quality of higher education, while at the same time making it more relevant. The conference will not be an end in itself. The regional conferences have adopted declarations and action plans or frameworks with a view to undertaking practical operational activities geared to training and research for the benefit of relevant and sustainable development. The conclusions of the regional conferences will be strengthened by a set of twelve thematic debates set up by governmental and non-governmental organizations that have contributed their know-how and the findings of their long experience to this exercise.
The logical outcome of this approach is the strengthening of inter-university co-operation based on solidarity, in which all partners are regarded as equals.
The need for higher education to be open to the world is well known. Higher education cannot and should not be visualized any longer in purely national or regional terms. Future graduates have to be in a position to take up the complex challenges of globalization and rise to the opportunities of the international labour market. The equitable transfer of knowledge and the mobility of students, teachers and researchers are crucial to the future of peace in the world.
Inter-university co-operation concerns everybody. One of the lessons learnt from this development is that no institution can excel in every field. Moreover, solidarity with developing countries is more necessary than ever and is now contingent upon the promotion of genuine scientific partnership between institutions the world over. This will make it possible to offset the excesses of the brain drain and will contribute to the transfer of knowledge. We must therefore invest in university co-operation and develop international exchange networks and cultural and scientific partnerships.
None of this will be possible without the mobilization of all the social partners involved in the development of higher education. Student participation in this process is absolutely essential. It is no coincidence that this conference is being held in 1998, thirty years after the student movement of May 1968 that created an upheaval in university structures in many countries.
Before 1968, students were not consulted. History taught us a lesson that we should not need to repeat. As Georges Haddad, Chairperson of the Steering Committee responsible for supervising preparations for the World Conference, has suggested, one of its conclusions could concern the organization of World Higher Education Days convened once every four years. Their objective would be to draw up a status report on higher education in all parts of the world, promote innovative training and research projects, strengthen international co-operation and underscore the role of such education in fostering human development and peace. In addition, a forum, serviced jointly by UNESCO and the United Nations University and based on a network of Chairs in higher education, would be responsible for permanently monitoring developments in systems and institutions and for anticipating trends in structures, programmes and organizations.
In the final analysis, however, nothing can be achieved without resources. Partnership with the world of work is becoming imperative, there is widespread consensus on organizational and financial diversification, and there can be no doubt that institutions have to be well administered. However, the basic principle remains unchanged: the strong support of the authorities is essential to the development of higher education if it is to be capable of contributing to the building of a more just society.
In the Action Plan which the participants in the conference will be called upon to examine, it will be essential for the part dealing with co-operation to contain firm proposals aimed at strengthening inter-university co-operation based on solidarity, so as to help reduce the gap between rich countries and poor in the vital areas of the generation and application of knowledge. In order to attain these objectives, all the social partners involved in higher education have to be mobilized.
1. As defined by the General Conference of UNESCO at its 27th session (November 1993) in the Recommendation on the recognition of studies and qualifications on higher education 'higher education' means all types of studies, training or training for research at the post-secondary level provided by universities or other educational establishments, which are approved as institutions of higher education by the competent state authorities.
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