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GLOBAL: How higher education can help recovery

Against the background of the most synchronised recession in developed countries in over half a century, the OECD's Institutional Management in Higher Education 2010 general conference focused on how the higher education sector - governments, institutions and individuals - can help contribute to sustainable recovery. Capitalising on the OECD's respected evidence base and drawing on analyses and opinions from some of the world's leading experts, the conference tried to identify ways to achieve higher quality outcomes at a time of increased demand and fewer resources, and examined innovative approaches to meeting the challenges of equity and efficiency.

The biennial IMHE General Conference, entitled Higher Education in an World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less, took place at the OECD in Paris from 13-15 September 2010. A discussion document was published to describe the specific context for the conference and the need to consider responses for improved productivity given the lingering economic crisis.

The main goal of the conference was to identify longer-term trends within the global context. National policies were analysed, institutional case studies presented, and the latest research from the OECD and elsewhere was featured.

There were strong grounds for focusing the 2010 debate on the crucial 'productivity' theme. OECD members and their counterparts in other regions were battling to stave off the nightmares of unstable economies and rising unemployment. This focus could offer a critical window of opportunity to showcase the conference as part of national solutions for recovery.

Labour market linkages figured as a key area of the 2006-08 tertiary education review, which resulted in the publication titled Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society. Such an approach would enhance the image of the modern academy as a vital force in preparing human capital for an ever more complex and volatile workplace.

Yet to concentrate on short-term productivity would risk omitting discussion about important longer-term goals (inter alia sustainable growth, socially responsible citizens, and enhanced cooperation among the global community). However worrisome the post-recession period may be, ignoring the broader picture would be shortsighted.

Economic realities: Challenges tertiary education

To what extent has the crisis impacted on the tertiary education sector? Is the worst over or are further shock waves yet to come?

The OECD, the World Trade Organisation and others expect growth patterns to improve from 2011 onwards. Still, economic recovery remains uneven, at best. Indeed the G20 debates hosted by Canada in June 2010, acknowledging that the recession is ongoing, considered that a return to growth would rely heavily on sustainable stimulus measures accompanied by far-reaching financial and banking reforms.

Positive results reported in some contexts (for example Australia, Brazil, Canada, East Asia and Poland) have contrasted with the acute effects suffered elsewhere (Greece, Iceland, Ireland and Spain).

The post-recession world remains alarmingly volatile. Steady governance accompanied by flexible management would seem to be needed by national policy-makers, institutional leaders and managers as well as for the academy at large to ensure optimal outcomes for the policies and strategies selected in each country context.

Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society proposed a framework to respond to these salient questions. Comprising 24 countries in its analytical strand and 14 in its country strand, this exercise was a follow up to the meeting of OECD Education Ministers held in Athens in 2006.

The meeting reaffirmed the potential of a new framework for tertiary education (described as the 'modern academy') that could re-articulate objectives and functions to better drive economic growth and foster social cohesion. Consequently, crucial trends and practices have recently been widely documented and analysed for their response to this challenge.

The post-2010 scenario already poses certain thorny questions:

* Can the exact damage of the crisis be gauged?
* What positive and negative socio-economic impacts are visible to date?
* Which higher or tertiary education systems and institutions have found resourceful and innovative ways to face these new challenges?
* Which systems or institutions are battling to survive the crisis because their chosen policies and strategies may have come too late or lack optimal effectiveness?
* Are certain policy directions favoured to address the challenges?

These questions are of concern in all OECD countries and beyond. The survival tactics that have been adopted will constitute a valuable resource for consultation and eventual adaptation because the crisis is global and its impact significant.

These questions also serve to highlight the priority accorded to tertiary education worldwide, from the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries to economies of varying scale (among others Chile, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Malaysia), many of which are already modernising their systems. Even the most populous countries (such as Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria), facing major development hurdles, are according priority to tertiary education so as to ensure inclusion in the knowledge society.

This objective requires both high-level research capacity (assured by a robust university sector) and a highly skilled workforce (which can be trained in more diversified institutions and delivery modes).

Consequently, countries are shaping policy to take account of a common global tertiary education agenda comprising globalisation, massification, governance, equity, access and diversification, internationalisation and student mobility, teaching, learning and curriculum, quality assurance, financing, public-private provision, the academic profession, research, future ICT developments and social engagement.

Perspectives for tertiary education in a post-crisis world

Practically, how is tertiary education holding up in the present context?

* In the immediate circumstances, some trends have required urgent attention. For example, rising demand at undergraduate and graduate levels as students elect to enrol or stay in school, fluctuating research funding, and volatility in the international higher education market.

* The long-term challenges for tertiary education will need ever-stronger partnerships among concerned stakeholders. These alliances could set the future agenda for the next phase of the Knowledge Society and highlight the new imperatives for social engagement within the sector.

The impact of the recession is likely to be felt more acutely from 2010 onwards and a difficult economic climate could continue for another decade.

Many OECD countries are being forced to revise public policies that had been based on forecasts made on the assumption of better economic conditions. Challenges may include:

* Paying the post-recession bill (for instance, through increased taxation or higher inflation).
* Regaining investor confidence in the banking sector and financial markets.
* Addressing the needs and consequences of ageing populations in OECD countries.
* Rethinking immigration policies.
* Dealing with volatile labour market conditions including alarming levels of youth unemployment.
* Continued priority for the education and health sectors but with new costs to be met.
* Honouring pledges for enhanced green policies to better manage climate change, and responding effectively to humanitarian disasters as these befall segments of the human family.

Increased government regulation of the sector is anticipated, at least in the short-term. Moreover, clear conclusions for the tertiary education sector may be hard to draw in this situation because national responses will vary.

Would the IMHE conference conclude that the framework proposed by Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society remains the valid basis for the post-recession response? Or could a re-arrangement of priorities be necessary? Would the future world of tertiary education be irrevocably changed?

Whatever the scenario, the post-crisis debate on tertiary education must highlight the voice of the modern academy speaking with renewed vigour and authority.

Relevant questions will cover: governance; sustainability of the tertiary education sector; funding; measuring quality and impact; research and innovation in the global knowledge society and economy; efficiency and effectiveness; the international tertiary education context; and improving the quality, relevance and effectiveness of tertiary and higher education.

In the post-crisis world, a new global order may already be emerging. Governments will depend on able and ready partners to implement hectic survival agendas as they strive for a sustainable recovery.

The world is changing fast and new indicators are needed to measure this process. The legacy of the 2010 OECD IMHE general conference will reside in the wealth of effective responses provided by the modern academy to the complex socio-economic questions at hand.

This article summarises a discussion paper, authored by Mary-Louise Kearney and Richard Yelland and produced to inform the IMHE General Conference Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less. Read the full discussion paper here.

* Mary-Louise Kearney is a consultant to the OECD and former director of the Unesco Forum for Higher Education, Research and Knowledge. Richard Yelland is head of the Education Management and Infrastructure Division in the Directorate for Education at the OECD, in which the IMHE programme is located.
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