The global financial crisis means that higher education institutions "need to work smarter", said Barbara Ischinger, director for education at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "We need to ensure institutions play to their strengths," she said at the opening session of the three-day Institutional Management in Higher Education conference.
The conference, which started on Monday, has attracted 500 people from around 70 countries - the OECD's membership comprises just over 40 countries.
The conference title, "Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly - Doing more with less", was the sombre theme of the meeting, coming after three years of recession which is affecting public investment in universities while demand for higher education has never been higher.
Charles Reed, chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system - a huge university badly affected by the downturn - said the crisis had come at a time when the technological revolution had created a demand for a knowledge-based workforce.
"There are simply too many people trying to get through the door. Denying students access to higher education is just about the worst thing a university system can do in a recession," Reed said.
But how to ensure quality and at the same time contribute to research and the community was the main theme rectors, university presidents, administrators, researchers teachers and student representatives would be grappling with.
While many education ministries and university administrations were tightening their belts, "to concentrate on productivity in the short term would risk overlooking important longer term goals including sustainable growth, the development of socially responsible citizens, enhanced global cooperation," said Richard Yelland, head of the education management and infrastructure division in the OECD's education directorate.
Even in a downturn and post-recession world, keynote speakers spoke of the importance of a strong higher education sector as a basis for research and innovation.
"We need to innovate to thrive in this changed world. It is not just about doing more with less but also the need to deal with a competitive market," said Joe Astroth, chief education officer of the high-technology company Autodesk, who spoke about the importance of links with industry.
He said industry leaders were also looking towards higher education centres to try to do more with less. "We have less and less capital to invest in innovation and research and development.
"My plea is that we should be more innovative, not only based on technical advantage but also the creation of the new, and for that we need to develop higher education," said Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier, who received the prize for his work on HIV-Aids in Africa. "We must be more audacious."
But his call comes against a backdrop of declining spending on higher education in many countries. As Andre Susock of the European Universities Association pointed out, Europe in particular has seen increases in targeted funding and linking funding to measurable impacts.
"We may be out of the recession but we are not of the crisis," OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurrria said recently.
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