The mood at the 2010 OECD higher education conference was more self-critical than complaining, according to Richard Yelland, head of the education management and infrastructure division in the organisation's education directorate. "Notwithstanding their good intentions, institutions and systems are not fulfilling their social responsibilities - to nurture research which will address pressing global issues, and equitable access to teaching which is relevant to the labour market and to society," he told University World News.
Reflecting on the general conference of the OECD's Institutional Management in Higher Education programme, held in Paris from 13-15 September and entitled Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less, Yelland reached this and four other conclusions.
"Some of the fundamental challenges facing society and higher education are the need for research into intractable global issues on the one side, and access and equity on the other," said Yelland.
There was broad agreement at the conference that research could pay greater attention to pressing global issues. "There is certainly no room for complacency. We must be careful about moving towards over-emphasis on instrumental research - there must always be fundamental research.
"But it is fair to say there was an awareness that challenges remain, and the financial and economic situation has accentuated these."
Regarding access and the related issue of equity, Yelland said: "It is still the case for most systems that despite massification, access is primarily for people from advanced socio-economic groups. So the issue of fairness in access to higher education remains."
A second conclusion was contextual - that higher education has continued to expand and diversify, with increasing international competition and an expanding for-profit sector.
Growth in student numbers was one of the most striking aspects of higher education globally today, along with increasing diversity both in types of students and types of institutions, said Yelland.
"What also came out of the conference was the stronger international dimension, not only in higher education but also in the labour market. People are moving away from a focus on national needs and have become much more aware of the impact of global issues. This was also evident at the 2009 Unesco World Conference on Higher Education."
Internationalisation came out in different panels in different ways and the conference itself was more international than it has ever been, he added. Both the OECD and IMHE have a more global outlook than in the past. The conference platform was opened to speakers from outside the OECD, and Africa and Latin America were also the subjects of much debate.
"Another trend is the growth of the private sector, especially in the United States but also in other parts of the world. This is a relatively new element to higher education."
While in America the for-profit sector is accepted as part of a range of provision, there was increasing recognition of the imperative for private higher education to be regulated and accredited, just as public provision is. "There needs to be regulation of quality to ensure consumers are protected," Yelland pointed out.
"There is no prima facie problem with private higher education. But in some countries, such as Greece, it has been highly contentious. Still, it is growing rather than the opposite."
"The for-profit sector has on the whole been quicker than more traditional institutions to take advantage of on-line technology for teaching, although we were also reminded of the pioneering work of the British Open University and challenged to think about how to realize the potential of open educational resources - for example in teacher education."
A third conclusion from the conference was that "the university model - driven by aspiration to climb up the higher education value chain and amplified by rankings - is still leading to an undervaluing of higher level vocational education and open and distance learning".
The OECD produced a discussion document that assessed the current situation, written by Yelland and Mary-Louise Kearney, a higher education consultant. "Our paper refers to tertiary education. But people barely mentioned the term - the talk was either of higher education or universities.
"While tertiary education has diversified, the residential model for young people still dominates discourse and people's perceptions. University ranking accentuates that. There is a high degree of aspiration to climb up the rankings. To do that, what you need to show is improvement in the quality and volume of research.
"What this means is that teaching generally and vocationally oriented education and open and distance learning is being under-valued. This is not surprising but it needs to be restated."
Rankings kept coming up during the conference, said Yelland, perhaps because the three big global rankings had recently been published.
"Research has always been extremely important for institutions and for individual academics, who must 'publish or perish'. What is new, what the Shanghai and other rankings have done, has brought universities to the front pages of newspapers, which gets political attention.
"We can say that Shanghai does not pretend to measure anything except research, but people refer to the best universities in the world. The impact has been cumulative over the past five years and it is strong and probably detrimental. It leads to greater under-valuation of teaching."
"We have a system where one value trumps all others, which is not necessarily in the interests of society as a whole," commented Yelland.
A fourth conclusion was the existence of widespread support for better understanding of, and recognition for, teaching in higher education. The OECD's Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) initiative was presented and "is attracting increasingly positive references".
Teaching and learning would only be valued, Yelland pointed out, if it was better rewarded and understood.
Two OECD projects, AHELO and a study into the role of higher education in cities and regions, are attempting to shed light on things other than research that universities do. Europe's U-Multirank project, too, is beginning to evaluate institutions across a range of activities.
"Although there were some dissenting voices, there was also considerable agreement on the need to expand higher level professional and technical education to meet the needs for engineers and other graduates for industry."
A final conclusion was that despite widespread change and reform, "institutions on the whole are increasingly challenged by growth in demand, constrained funding, the expectations of students and stakeholders and demographic change", Yelland said.
The OECD did not want participants to spend time complaining about the current problems and the conference did not focus on immediate difficulties flowing from the financial crisis. Its horizon was broader than survival beyond the next few years and was deliberately wide.
Discussions ranged from fundamental research, interdisciplinarity and the role of higher education in culture and innovation, to policies, changing business models, the role of the non-profit sector, technological advances and growing international competition.
Yelland raised questions at the start of the conference. One comment in response was that the questions were not new and, he said, this was a fair comment.
"The feeling in the sector was that there has been a great deal of change and reform - for example, the Bologna process and reforms in Australia - but that fundamental questions remain. We also got a wide-ranging and responsible realisation that there are some serious challenges ahead and that more change may be necessary.
"There was an understanding that there were some responsibilities that needed to be met in terms of providing, in as efficient and effective a way as possible, teaching, learning, research and innovation that both developed and developing countries need."
The premise of the conference was 'doing more with less'. In his speech Charles B Reed, Chancellor of California State University, provided an exemplar for how many universities are trying to do that.
"But there was also quite a strong trend saying 'we must do more with more' in some countries," Yelland said. "The OECD line is that we must certainly at least maintain investment in human capital, innovation and research."
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