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Some research findings and strategies

Global research by UNESCO has found that key factors in responding effectively to the changing dynamics of higher education, research and innovation systems include recognising the knowledge dividend, reinforcing the role of HERI systems in knowledge-based societies, reaffirming the right to research, and learning from positive and negative experiences.

These factors are valid for all development contexts, according to Mary-Louise Kearney, Director of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge.

"Strength in these areas permits industrialised countries to monitor their performance, to maintain sustained growth, or to make necessary adjustments when faced with turbulent conditions," she writes in the Forum's Research Report.

Middle- and low-income countries urgently need to build their own knowledge bases. The challenge is greatest for the poorest states, which are striving to achieve the Millennium Development Goals with support from the 'One UN' strategy, which aims to achieve more concerted action between UN agencies and to optimise the impact of donor assistance.

The Knowledge Society

The 1990s witnessed swift change leading to a 'Third Industrial Revolution' based on new technologies, which have facilitated globalisation. The Knowledge Society and Knowledge Economy place cognitive resources at the centre of human activity and social dynamics.

Managing a knowledge-based society is a complex process involving various strategies and mechanisms. Elements range from traditional upstream aspects such as governance, policies and investment, to downstream management of knowledge institutions and workers.

Use of the plural 'knowledge-based societies' suggests that countries should strive to foster their own version of the global Knowledge Society. "This principle of ownership is crucial in order to ensure that knowledge production via research and higher education are directly relevant to national development agendas," writes Kearney.

Governance, 'brain drain', resource levels and the widening 'digital divide' are common challenges, but strategies around higher education, innovation and research should be tailored to specific contexts.

Higher education

In higher education, 'massification' has radically changed patterns of knowledge production, diffusion and application. Demand continues to rise around the world and the global student population could reach around 150 million by 2025. Institutional diversification has become essential to achieve a range of provision and has led to a new tertiary paradigm which has specific characteristics - such as widening access through face-to-face and open learning, and engagement with regional and local priorities - and has generated its own research agenda.


Innovation systems may be varied in scope and have different organisational and institutional components. Forum debates have identified 10 critical activities that occur in these systems:

1- R&D investment to create new knowledge.
2- Capacity-building to develop a highly skilled R&D workforce.
3- Establishment of new product markets.
4- Quality assurance mechanisms.
5- Encouraging creative organisations that promote entrepreneurship and innovation.
6- Networking through markets and mechanisms with interactive learning.
7- Institutions that facilitate innovation, such as intellectual property rights and tax laws.
8- Incubation activities to foster innovative projects.
9- Financing innovative processes to facilitate the commercialisation of knowledge.
10- Consultancy services for technology transfer.

Innovation in developing countries poses special challenges, and these were analysed by two expert workshops organised by the Forum in 2009. Special factors identified include democracy and governance, investment in education and training at all levels, and the state of the economy.


In recent years, OECD member country governments have placed unprecedented emphasis on research as a key motor for national development. "This has led to new challenges for research management, and to universities expanding research links with industry, commerce and government, and the community at large," writes Kearney.

The picture is very different in the developing world. In Africa, expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP remained under 0.5% between 1992 and 2000, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics. Inadequate investment is evidenced by a weakened university system and an often fledgling private sector with little state support. The decline of universities in Africa due to lack of investment has led to widespread calls for emergency assistance.

Some findings

Throughout its 10-year existence, Kearney explains, the Forum has focused on gathering information on and analysing HERI systems, with the purpose of sharing successful practices that have the potential to be adapted to other contexts.

Among its findings, the Forum concluded that systemic analysis is a three-fold process that primarily involves:

1- Understanding the specific socio-political, economic and cultural dimensions of the research context, which is the essential framework for formulating advice.

2- Documenting research systems by collecting reliable data on policies, infrastructure, human capacity and investment. This is necessary for evidence-based policy-making intended to advance a country's global competitiveness and connectedness and to tackle local challenges. For developing countries the research dimension of the Millennium Development Goals should be clearly articulated, so as to underpin long-term sustained solutions.

3- Nurturing research universities is perhaps the single strongest component of knowledge-based systems. Inadequate policies and investment over many years have diminished this potential in the poorest states. Forward-looking strategies and a range of partnerships are urgently required in order to bridge the gap.

Forum global and regional committees defined priority areas where reflection and analysis were considered essential in order to underpin HERI systems. Regional themes are outlined below. The global themes were: the determinants and consequences of change in higher education; governance in higher education and research; knowledge and its production; and the context of higher education and research.

Following extensive analyses carried out by the Forum network, major strategies to facilitate the establishment and reinforcement of HERI systems were identified. They fall into four broad categories of strategies that help to:

1- Shape evidence-based and context-relevant HERI policies
* Identifying the socio-economic and related factors which lead governments to innovate.
* Sharing methodologies for mapping and analysing key systems of knowledge in key domains, including higher education, innovation, health and agriculture.
* Creating innovative regional climates for knowledge-generation.
* Assessing the impact of experimental HERI policies.
* Tracking associated context-specific initiatives which support and facilitate research and research outputs.
* Considering the dynamics of specific social contexts which can help promote sustained climates of innovation.

2- Promote institutional infrastructure, human resources and investment in research
* Analysing increased investment in research.
* Scrutinising how innovative institutional infrastructure can promote research and knowledge management.
* Evaluating incentives to retain and-or attract highly-skilled research personnel.

3- Enhance international research cooperation
* Promoting collaborative research to address shifting geo-political contexts.
* Documenting stronger linkages among research communities worldwide.
* Gauging the effects of civil society engagement on research.
* Investigating the growing role of the private sector in promoting or supporting research.
* Measuring the advisory role of international and regional governmental organisations and non-governmental organisations to help build HERI systems.
* Comparing how specific arrangements for international cooperation help to strengthen research and innovation.

4- Boost transfer, adaptation and dissemination of research outputs
* Studying strategies for enhanced information technology connectivity to underpin research.
* Determining effective measures to transfer and disseminate research output.

Since 2001 the UNESCO Forum has pursued its mandate to help understand, chart, build and maintain knowledge systems in global and local settings, and to promote their replication and adaptation worldwide. Forum efforts have been dedicated to ensuring all Member States have equitable access to these systems. "Any future phase of the Forum must build on the valuable lessons learned to date," argues Kearney.

* Regional priority areas

Forum committees in the five UNESCO regions defined the following priority areas for reflection and analysis:

Africa: Analytical, historical and policy investigations into African higher education.
Arab States: Patterns of higher education in Arab states - present and future challenges; institutional settings and policies; education quality; and research, researchers and graduate studies.
Asia Pacific: Higher education and research; knowledge systems; and research management.
Europe and North America: Structures and diversification; managerialism and evaluation; globalising knowledge - European and North American policies and activities; and addressing the relationship with other UNESCO regions.
Latin America and the Caribbean: Stock-taking of regional higher education reforms in the 1990s and future prospects; science, higher education and the state in the internationalisation process; conceptual framework; and challenges facing universities in the Knowledge Society.
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