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Conference calls for higher education action

The past decade has provided evidence that higher education and research contribute to the eradication of poverty, to sustainable development and to progress towards reaching global development goals, says the final communiqué of the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education.

There are also seven calls on UNESCO to take action that the communiqué says should reaffirm the priority of higher education in its future programmes and budgets. This was a promise made by Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura after the document's adoption by 150 states.

Matsuura said the most severe economic crisis in 80 years also offered opportunities: "It has shown us that cooperation is not only necessary, it is the sine qua non of getting back on track".

The World Conference demonstrated that higher education cannot be seen in isolation - from other levels of education or from socio-economic and other realities - and that it is not monolithic but has a wide range of purposes, he added.

The communiqué recognises the strategic role of higher education by calling on governments to commit sufficient resources to the sector while also encouraging diversification.

"This is crucial. Higher education must provide access for all," Matsuura said. "Access and quality must be addressed hand-in-hand. The communiqué stresses frameworks for quality assurance mechanisms that respect cultural diversity."

Finally, it emphasises flexibility and innovation, the need to establish regional higher education areas, to counter the brain-drain and to foster peace and development.

Regional conferences held by UNESCO to prepare for the World Conference showed that the same problems occurred around the world, said General Rapporteur Professor Suzy Halimi, Director of the Institut du Monde Anglophone at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3.

"So the forum was a way of thinking together about common challenges. But there were also specific regional challenges, so there is a need to avoid standardised solutions." Africa was a conference priority and it was imperative to act to support higher education on the continent.

There were six powerful messages from the conference, Halimi said.

The first two messages were for politicians and states. First, they must preserve higher education as a major investment in the future and as a public good, even though the private sector can make a contribution: "Do not relent in effort, even in a crisis," she stressed. Then they must give international solidarity its full meaning by finding innovative ways of financing and helping developing countries to build quality higher education.

The second two messages were for higher education institutions. First, they need to clearly define objectives and aim for excellence in fields of speciality. "Second, train your teachers, recognise their status, enhance their image and pay them a good wage. Do not believe that technology, however good, can ever replace human teachers, face to face. We all know this."

The third two messages were for UNESCO. First, recognise the role of higher education in education as a whole and accord the sector its place in programmes and budgets. Second, UNESCO must play its roles to the fullest - standard-setting, rules of good practice, assisting countries that are trying to develop higher education, and being an observatory and collector and diffuser of good practices and statistics as tools of transparency.

The communiqué

In its preamble, the final communiqué says: "Higher education as a public good and strategic imperative for all levels of education and the basis for research, innovation and creativity must be a matter of responsibility and economic support of all governments". Further, higher education must be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit as stressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The document expresses concern that the "economic downturn may widen the gap in access and quality between developed and developing countries, and within countries, presenting additional challenges to countries where access is already restricted. At no time in history has it been more important to invest in higher education as a major force in building an inclusive and diverse knowledge society and to advance research, innovation and creativity."

The communiqué goes on to describe in some detail issues and challenges in five areas: the social responsibility of higher education, access, equity and quality, internationalisation, regionalisation and globalisation, learning, research and innovation, and higher education in Africa.

It then moves on to call for specific actions by UNESCO member states, and by UNESCO itself. Below are slightly edited versions of the draft final communiqué.

Call for action: Member states

Member states, working in collaboration with all stakeholders, should develop policies and strategies at systems and institutional levels to:

a) Maintain and, if possible, increase investment in higher education to sustain quality and equity at all times and foster diversification in the provision of higher education and the means of funding.

b) Ensure adequate investments in higher education and research to reflect growing expectations and societal needs.

c) Put in place and strengthen appropriate quality assurance systems and regulatory frameworks with the involvement of all stakeholders.

d) Scale up pre-service and in-service teacher training with curricula that equip teachers to prepare students as responsible citizens.

e) Guarantee women's access to higher education as well as their participation and success.

f) Guarantee equal access to under-represented groups such as workers, the poor, minorities, the differently-abled, migrants, refugees and other vulnerable populations.

g) Development mechanisms to counteract the negative impact of the brain-drain while encouraging academic, staff and student mobility.

h) Support greater regional cooperation in higher education conducive to the establishment and strengthening of regional higher education and research areas.

i) Empower least developed countries and small island developing states to benefit from the opportunities offered by globalisation and foster collaboration between them.

j) Pursue the goals of equity, quality and success by developing more flexible entry pathways and assuring better recognition of prior learning and work experience.

k) Enhance the attractiveness of the academic career by ensuring respect for the rights and adequate working conditions of academic staff in accordance with the 1997 recommendation concerning the status of higher education teaching personnel.

l) Assure active student participation in academic life, ensuring freedom of expression and the right of organisation, and provide adequate student services.

m) Combat degree mills through multi-pronged action at national and international levels.

n) Develop more flexible and organised research systems that promote science excellence and inter-disciplinarity, and that serve society.

o) Support the full integration of ICTs and promote open and distance learning to meet the increasing demands of higher education.

Call for action: UNESCO

UNESCO - within its five functions of being a laboratory of ideas, a catalyst for international cooperation, a standard-setter, capacity-builder and clearing house - should:

a) Assist with the formulation of long-term, sustainable strategies for higher education and research in tune with internationally agreed development goals and national-regional needs.

b) Provide platforms for dialogue and the sharing of experience and information on higher education and research, and assist in building capacity in the formulation of higher education and research policies.

c) Help government and institutions to address international issues in higher education, such as:

- Continuing to implement its standard-setting instruments, in particular the new generation of regional conventions for recognition of qualifications, and the 1997 Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel.

- Pursuing its work in capacity-building for quality assurance in developing countries.

- Fostering international collaboration in teacher education in all regions, especially in Africa through Teacher Training in Sub-Saharan Africa.

- Encouraging the transfer of knowledge through UNITWIN Networks and UNESCO Chairs, in collaboration with other agencies, to further capacity development to realise internationally agreed goals such as Education for All, the Millennium Development Goals and the United Nation's Decades.

d) Encourage international mobility and exchanges of students and staff, while developing strategies to counteract the negative impact of brain-drain.

e) Enhance student participation in UNESCO forums and support global student dialogue.

f) Ensure a follow-up to the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education by: identifying the most important issues and priorities for immediate action, monitoring trends, reforms and new developments, and promoting regional integration and academic cooperation; and by supporting the creation and development of regional areas of higher education and research and strengthening regional UNESCO units in coordination with existing networks.

g) Reinforce and extend the UNESCO-ADEA Task Force for Higher Education in Africa, which includes major partners and donors to developing countries from other regions, to ensure effective follow-up to the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education and go beyond talk and recommendations.

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