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Redefining knowledge and development

After 10 years of analysising systems around the world, the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge needs to redefine key concepts that underpin research and innovation and their contributions to development. Profiles and analyses of emerging knowledge systems in low- and middle-income nations have provided a vital building block - but it is limited in usefulness as the basis for new and more effective ways of linking knowledge with development for the benefit of developing nations.

Attention to lists of research gaps that emerged in the work of the Forum is likely to be valuable but does not necessarily constitute a basis for a different theory on knowledge and development, and a different practice that is better suited to the needs of low- and middle-income countries, writes Mala Sing in the final chapter of Forum's Research Report.

It is time to rethink and re-theorise concepts such as what "counts as development within a Knowledge Society", and "what knowledge counts for development", she argues in a chapter titled "On the Way from the Forum: A future research agenda".

Such a move could look like a retreat into academicism, she acknowledges, but concludes: "It may, however, be the most grounded and future-oriented option, within a conjuncture where a number of policy certainties and their accompanying development prescriptions have become decidedly shaky in the face of current global social and financial crises."

Singh says the UNESCO Forum provides an opportunity to rethink accepted organising principles for social development. In fact, it could help create a new discourse on the Knowledge Society and innovation, resulting in a more creative look at knowledge systems and their development roles and responsibilities, particularly for low- and medium-income countries.

For example, practices in high-income countries are often influential in low- and middle-income countries, but this trend needs to be challenged. High-income countries have quite different social, political, economic and cultural environments from low and middle-income countries and therefore the applicability of their practices for such countries should be critically examined, Singh says.

The extent of the differences between different nations, including between those that are developing their knowledge systems, also poses a key question for the forum - are there minimum political and cultural conditions for knowledge societies?

There is an assumption, Singh writes, that the values of the European Enlightenment - secularism, democracy and freedom of expression - are required for a knowledge society. But what does that mean for countries that do not have such a tradition?

"It would be useful to explore what models of 'social development' are emerging which are linked to knowledge and science systems that are co-existent with religious belief systems and systems of political rule that are not formal or functional democracies," she suggests.

Singh notes evidence of self-censorship by researchers in Jordan but observes that Islamic nations have a strong tradition of scientific practice and an impressive history of scientific achievement.

"The disjuncture and continuities between past and currently evolving science systems, for example in Islamic countries, are themselves worth further exploration. This may help throw more light on how certain cultural features of societal settings mediate the knowledge enterprise negatively or positively, and impact on the fullness of Knowledge Society aspirations."

The relationships between knowledge and power, and knowledge and ethics, are also worth revisiting, Singh writes.

On the issue of ethics, she notes that some high-income countries have established boundaries in some areas of research, such as human cloning. How might values in low and medium-income countries translate into research boundaries in those nations? Singh asks.

"Questions about whether all knowledge is to be pursued wherever it might lead, and what the acceptable normative, cultural and sustainability limits are on the pursuit of scientific and technological knowledge, are important issues for ongoing debate and future policy development for knowledge systems in low- and middle-income countries."

Despite the differences between nations, the UNESCO Forum found commonality in the challenges and trade-offs faced by knowledge systems around the world, though these were exacerbated in low and medium-income countries.

Lack of funding, brain-drain, and exclusion of certain groups from research and education were among the issues shared by many nations, and their approaches to those problem were therefore worth sharing.

Singh calls for researchers from low- and middle-income countries to further analyse the UNESCO Forum's work as they might reach different conclusions on issues the Forum should address in order to strengthen knowledge systems.

Such work could open up a vast world of information and analyses that are hidden from the mainstream research world because they are conducted in local languages and published in local networks, Singh writes.

"This was an issue that was flagged with strong feeling in some of the Forum discussions. It poses for the Forum a sharp question as to what knowledge claims are credible in constructing a 'global' picture of knowledge systems in service of development, if one has not taken account of the work of professional and academic communities that are mostly invisible in global fora and international discussions."

Singh argues that the UNESCO Forum's work has also shown the need for improved data collection and analysis, stronger links between research and policy-making, and more internationally cooperative and comparative research.

Key requirements are not only to fill gaps in the data, but also to develop revised templates and indicators for the collection and analysis of information about knowledge systems. Singh also notes a need for deeper analysis of the sub-systems and processes within the knowledge systems of low- and middle-income countries, how they deal with issues such as national needs and government priorities, and their development impacts on those countries.

* Professor Mala Singh is a Professor of International Higher Education Policy in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University in the UK, and former CEO of the Council on Higher Education in South Africa. She has been a Visiting Fellow in the Southern African Research Programme at Yale University in the US and a Fulbright Scholar at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Click here to download the Unesco Forum Research Report.

Comment:
I appreciate and laud Professor Mala Singh for her report on the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education which outlined the issues and concern in higher education and research as analysed during a 10-year period. It is recognised that there exists a large gap in research and education undertakings between developed, developing and less developed countries. This gap results from the disparities in income from where support and inputs to development in education and research come.

The developed countries have all the means to engage in all kinds of development efforts in research and education because of the extent of their manpower and technogical resources which others do not have. I think that an effective way of managing development is to encourage developed countries to engage in advanced education and research and the products of their activities openly shared with the less developed countries through a relevant and appropriate technology transfer mechanism which would allow recipient countries to make good use and application of products and
services made avaliable to them to facilitate and enhance their development.

In this regards, it is necessary for governments to establish a forum, probably under UNESCO's initiative, focusing only on issues in higher education and research, where intra and inter-regional cooperation in education and research could be mustered. UNESCO has been doing great along this line and it needs all the cooperation it could get to realize its objectives.

Leodegardo M. Pruna
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