150 governments attending the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in Paris last week unanimously adopted a communiqué acknowledging higher education as a 'public good' and calling on countries not to disinvest in the sector during the global economic crisis, among other issues raised.
The agreement pits UNESCO ideologically against including education as a 'service' in the General Agreement on Trade and Services of the World Trade Organisation, although the UN agency does not have a formal place at the negotiating table. It is a battle front that divides many developed and developing countries, and although WTO talks are stalled, it is possible they will be revived later this year.
Some 1,200 representatives from 150 countries - including more than 60 education ministers - attended the 2009 World Conference held from 5-8 July, which looked at new dynamics in higher education and future directions. The previous World Conference was held in 1998.
General Rapporteur Professor Suzy Halimi, Director of the Institut du Monde Anglophone at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3, said the high degree of participation of ministers and governments demonstrated growing realisation of the importance of higher education and showed that "UNESCO is trusted to play its role in education and higher education".
Members of the British delegation were disappointed that Higher Education Minister David Lammy who was due to attend, was not after all part of the official UK delegation. One vice-chancellor told University World News it was "embarrassing" for Britain's delegation to be led by a civil servant when other education ministers had travelled from far further afield.
Britain was represented by David Levesque, Senior Education Adviser at the Department for International Development, who confirmed the UK was fulfilling its commitments made at Gleneagles in 2005 to double its assistance to Africa, despite the economic downturn.
The four days of the conference were marked by an opening ceremony, three plenary sessions, three panels and 24 parallel sessions, among other activities. Hundreds of speeches were given, along with presentations and responses, and long debates - a huge volume of talk that had, in the end, to lead to action.
Consensus was difficult but it was finally achieved, said the chair of the communiqué drafting group Vladimir Filippov, Russia's Education Minister. Battle lines were drawn over whether higher education was a 'public good' or a 'public service', as well as over quality and other issues.
The long road to agreement started with a first draft in June, based on recommendations by preparatory conferences held in UNESCO's six world regions over the past year. Late that month, a special internet forum was conducted to discuss key higher education issues and, as Filippov told the conference, this had resulted in "hundreds of interesting proposals".
During the conference the drafting group - some 60 people including 31 elected members, observers, experts and stakeholder representatives - held six meetings to discuss some 400 proposals received from the conference, and the inputs of two general rapporteurs. The penultimate meeting lasted until 4.00am on the final day.
So the communiqué, Filippov said, reflected a great diversity of proposals and all the main trends in the development of higher education around the world, current and future. He suggested that UNESCO organise a follow-up to monitor implementation of the conference calls for action.
Exploding demand for higher education during the last decade, especially in developing countries, has been accompanied by extraordinary growth in private provision and rising tensions over the entry of foreign institutions into local markets.
"There was some opposition and tension about private higher education at this conference compared to a decade ago," said Monique Fouilhoux of the non-governmental Education International, who was a member of the World Conference drafting group.
The 'public good' debate followed numerous political squabbles over the "commodification" of higher education. At its heart is the wish by several developed countries to export educational provision without facing barriers to entry in foreign markets. They have pushed other countries to sign into effect education's inclusion in GATS, which would allow private providers to set up freely in those countries.
Developing countries fear their governments will be constrained from regulating higher education. For instance, there has been concern that governments would be required under GATS to subsidise foreign education providers on the same basis as they fund local public universities or violate GATS anti-discriminatory clauses.
Delegates said WTO talks were mentioned "in almost every session" of the drafting group, though they were barely aired in public discussions. They said that unless education as a human right or a public good was explicit in the UNESCO statement, it could be seen as an endorsement of opening up "trade in education" to private providers in WTO negotiations.
Use of the words 'public good' appeared in the first draft communiqué published on 26 June. It was replaced with 'public service' in the second draft - which also shunted the section on social responsibility in higher education down the list of themes - and then popped back up again in the final communiqué as the very first point: "Higher education as a public good is the responsibility of all stakeholders, especially governments," the communiqué says.
Minister after minister supported this stance and, sources said, India was insistent on this in the drafting group. India does not currently allow foreign higher education providers but the current government will present a bill to parliament to allow them in under certain conditions, an Indian delegate told the conference.
Indian Minister for Human Resources Kapil Sibal told the conference that "no nation in the world can cater to the need of the explosion that is taking place in education. Private players can serve the market." Sibal suggested that UNESCO should set up benchmarking institutions to ensure standards for all education providers, including private ones.
Speaking on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean group within UNESCO, Argentina's Minister for Education Juan Carlos Tedesco said: "We have to stress the idea that education and knowledge is part of the public good which each and every citizen has a right to."
A number of countries, including Colombia, said they had been able to work harmoniously with private providers, and that private education was part of the challenge of providing a well-educated work force. But although private providers now enrol 30% of the world's student population, it was barely mentioned in the final communiqué.
UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura told delegates after adoption of the communiqué: "UNESCO will continue to be a strong voice for higher education. We do not see an opposition between higher education and our steadfast commitment to Education for All. Rather higher education is vital for scaling up teacher education.
"UNESCO will continue to work closely with governments and other partners to strengthen their tertiary institutions and policies, and build regional centres of excellence. It is only through establishing such centres of excellence in developing regions that higher education will become an agent for social change in emerging countries - a political, social and economic."
Matsuura said the conference findings would feed into UNESCO's general conference in the autumn and into November's World Science Forum.
May I register my comments on the recently held UNESCO Conference on Higher
Education as follows:
1. On the issue of whether higher education is a "public good" or a "public service", I support the former. However, we should emphasise the meaning of "good" - that good is not a commodity but rather the result of adopting a system of providing a teaching/learning envirnoment that will aid the effective development of a nation's human resource.
Along this line, the public and the private sectors could separately or jointly invest in higher education in areas which are relevant to development concerns of the countries they operate following a standard to be established by UNESCO.
2. I also subscribe to the observation made that technology can never replace the teacher in the classroom no matter how efficient the technology. The effectiveness, which is an index obtaining from the impact of a face-to-face encounter between the teacher and the learner, can not be substituted by technology.
3. UNESCO should and must insist,. through supportive and encouraging actions, that governments enhance the promotion and establishment of quality, relevant and accessible higher education institutions. which will provide education and training to their constituents. This will lead to the facilitation of growth and development of nations resulting from an educated and trained human resource.
Leodegardo M. Pruna
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