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Compelling rationale for a UNESCO Forum

In its first 10 years of existence, the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge has proved its potential as an arena for researchers to present original studies and research on the common ground between universities, research and innovation. Aggregated data gathered and generated by the Forum builds a way of assessing trends over time and making comparative country-by-country assessments.

In the opening chapter of the UNESCO Forum Research Report, titled "Compelling Rationale for a UNESCO Forum on Knowledge Systems", Berit Olsson and Thandika Mkandawire suggest that UNESCO is a unique hub through which higher education, research and innovation discussions can take place - both across UN agencies and between member states.

Articulating the case for the Forum's continuation, the chapter says it could establish a "virtual reference library" of available studies that would be of value not only for UNESCO staff members in their advisory and normative roles, but also for researchers in member states.

The Forum was established by UNESCO after the World Conference on Higher Education in 1998 and the World Conference on Science in 1999 reaffirmed the crucial role of higher learning and analysis in sustainable development. The conferences also challenged the trend-setting policies of some funding agencies which downplayed the role of universities in low-income countries.

The conferences' 'wake-up call' could not be ignored, affirming UNESCO's view of the value of higher education as a public good in contrast to the World Bank's advocacy of (privately funded) higher education as a private gain.

While the 'knowledge nexus' is now regarded as a key driver of sustainable social and economic development, great disparities in capacity and opportunity between countries and across income levels remain.

All countries, including low-income countries, need to invest in a vital research community, but a major challenge for low-income countries remains the identification of affordable strategies to support appropriate systems for higher education, research and innovation (HERI) structures - the key building blocks of a knowledge system.

This task starts with the UN and its agencies, the authors argue. At the heart of the 'One UN' strategy, there is an obvious need to align efforts to enhance national research systems, linked to various specialised agencies, in a coordinated and comprehensive strategy.

Olsson and Mkandawire say: "In our view and for the sake of optimal impact in its work, UNESCO should shift the balance, from research along specific issues and programmes to strengthening its core capacity for informed, evidence-based advice on HERI systems.

"In its advice to Member States and external funding agencies ('donors'), UNESCO should stress the need for investing in a basis for research, including research universities, as a prerequisite for targeted funds for 'excellence' or specific research areas."

They see a recent decision to create an inter-sectoral platform as a step in this direction, provided that it is adequately funded from the Regular Programme.

But a more powerful thrust towards UNESCO's role for advocacy and advice on advanced knowledge systems would be given through a formal merger of the current Division of Higher Education, the Social and Human Sciences and the Natural Sciences sectors.

"If UNESCO is to shoulder the challenge of its mandate, of providing advice on the organisation and funding of research, from a 'One UN' perspective the organisation will have to rethink the current fragmentation," argue Olsson and Mkandawire.

Many existing UN agency initiatives are focussed on the need to understand higher education, research and innovation systems better.

The World Health Organisation has developed a policy on "research for health", presented to the World Health Assembly in May 2009. The Food and Agricultural Organisation-linked Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research consortia address the need for stronger national research systems. And the UN's Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) has called for stronger systems for research on social development in low-income countries. Other more specialised research groups aim to enhance the inclusion of low-income countries in global research efforts.

Olsson and Mkandawire acknowledge that the Forum has succeeded in generating active interest, participation and support on an inter-sectoral basis, and this has greatly contributed to its success:

"If UNESCO is to be credible in its ambitions of driving HERI policy throughout the UN system and of becoming a Clearing House for other initiatives (such as the new International Council for Science engagement to strengthen research in Africa, the Global University Network for Innovation, and indeed the OECD's own broad engagement in these fields), it will have to put substantive commitment behind the cohesion of its internal efforts."

Continuation of the UNESCO Forum is necessary for effective engagement by UNESCO in advising Member States on HERI systems, acting as a repository of information and analysis, and as a link to the system-oriented global research community.

"Given the Forum's proven potential, UNESCO's clear commitment to this important initiative in its planning and budgetary strategies is a critical factor. In this regard UNESCO's EFA Global Monitoring Report, with its autonomous status, presents a useful model for recording data and analysing emerging trends," Olsson and Mkandawire write.

The Forum has proven potential to attract researchers active in analysing HERI systems. It thus offers a vital link between UNESCO, its Member States and the research community, which is crucial for understanding, shaping and assessing the advanced knowledge systems essential for sustainable development in all countries.

Through the Forum, researchers who study systems of advanced knowledge, innovation and research are connected, the authors continue. "Nurtured over the years by regional and international groups of scholars and scientists, the Forum has defined and given voice to a broad range of issues and challenges."

The Forum has also brought to the fore evidence-based scrutiny of a number of key issues on the role of research in quality higher education, and the role of universities in research.

Initially, the Forum mainly featured research on higher education systems but it has, more recently, made special efforts to highlight issues relating to research and innovation systems.

Its early gatherings identified problems and trends in higher education and research management: the commodification of higher education, and trade and GATTS issues were high on the agenda, as was the debate over research management at various levels.

Then in 2006 the focus shifted to the role of universities in research. It was felt universities, under pressures of scarce resources and 'massification', needed to be rescued from a slide into large-scale, lower-quality institutions. A solution was sought through the formulation and implementation of clear national policies, and regulatory mechanisms that would minimise academic drift and concentrate resources in at least one genuine research university in each country.

Few low-income countries have produced research policy frameworks, partly because the need has not become obvious to decision-makers and partly because little is known about how to formulate and orient such policies. To the extent that research policies exist, they often address issues for research and research priorities, with less attention paid to all-important frameworks for how research functions.

The Forum's workshops, seminars and colloquia have drawn attention to the need for all countries to foster a vital community of researchers.

"Indigenous research is essential, including as a guarantee of quality and integrity in the analyses that underpin national development policies and strategies. Such capacity is crucial in low-income countries, many of which continue to depend on external support and ideas for their development efforts," write Olsson and Mkandawire.

The UNESCO Forum aims to constitute a repository of information on low- and middle-income countries which, with the information available on OECD countries, will serve as a genuine knowledge bank on "global knowledge systems".

* Dr Berit Olsson is former Director of the Department for Research Cooperation, at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, a consultant for SIDA, and a member of the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education Committee.

* Dr Thandika Mkandawire recently retired as Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, UNRISD. He is an economist and expert in comparative research on development issues.
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