The 2011 World Innovation Summit for Education brought together 1,300 participants to identify and promote innovative solutions to educational challenges. Organised by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, with the objective of pushing education higher up the world's political and social agendas, WISE covers education from kindergarten upwards. International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) Secretary-General Neal King spoke to YOJANA SHARMA about higher education aspects of the summit.
UWN: How did IAUP become involved in WISE?
King: IAUP has been a partner to the Qatar Foundation from the very beginning in the design and implementation of WISE and this is the third year the WISE summit has taken place. It is astonishing how rapidly WISE has broadened its reach.
WISE manages to convene the most amazing cross-section and they insist on it not being all educators or all policy-makers or all funders, so it's in the very mix that they bring together that there is an energy that doesn't ever happen if it's all educators or all policy-makers in the room.
Sheikha Moza (bint Nasser), the second wife of the Emir and the chairperson of the Qatar Foundation, is very active. She has really moved the needle by convening - three years in a row - this remarkable conference of thinkers and doers and funders and policy-makers from around the world in a very balanced way.
We were informed early on that they did not want WISE to be predominantly Americans or predominantly any group. They wanted to see the Muslim world well represented, the Middle East well represented, the developing world well represented, and they really have held to that. I have been very impressed.
The Sheikha has been quietly, passionately insisting that education access be increased for women, that the infrastructure in the developing world be strengthened so that more and more young people be allowed the opportunity to have an education - even fundamental education at the primary level.
UWN: What does IAUP bring to the WISE partnership?
King: IAUP is in partnership with WISE together with the Institute of International Education and the Association of Commonwealth Universities that focuses on English speaking colleges and universities of the former British empire.
At IAUP we are really global, a volunteer organisation entirely of CEOs, rectors, presidents and vice-chancellors, so what we bring is a very high-level focus on higher education. With the predilection of the Sheikha to focus on K-12 [primary and secondary education], we help broaden the conversation to include what happens after that, and to help focus on what's required to prepare young people during the K-12 years to succeed at the university level. So we play a crucial role.
UWN: The theme was "Changing Societies, Changing Education". How did the summit tackle that?
King: The Qatar foundation convenes people with a collective passion and commitment to education. These are people who can really make a difference and this is reinforced and energised by their contact with each other.
There was a recognition that you can't count on governments because they are so entrenched and polarised and ineffective. One panelist said you have to count on the NGOs and a former minister from Ecuador who was in the audience said you can't count on the NGOs, you have to count on the citizenry.
You have to get the whole population involved, that's where the real change in education is going to take place, particularly if the Millennium Development Goals are to be reached.
UWN: What does that mean for universities if the citizenry are involved? Won't universities become hotbeds of action?
King: That's a fair question. In my mind it puts the university back in the social activist role, which I think we rightfully inhabit and should own in the community. We can't simply sit in the ivory tower and analyse things.
We are in a unique position in terms of the education we all have. We have the obligation to apply that to fixing social problems and advocating for change. There's risk in that - you risk losing funding, you risk losing political support, and often we see with IAUP colleagues around the world that you risk bodily harm and even death.
But the tradition of the role of academic society in the larger society is one of service and application of knowledge and provoking critical suggestions.
UWN: WISE involves a huge number of speeches, panels and workshops, reflecting a diverse sector. Was there a main topic of discussion on higher education that emerged?
King: I chaired a debate on the topic "Education Reform - Mission Impossible?" We talked about all the barriers that exist - at the governmental level, at the ministerial level at the policy level, at the entrenched interest level - to really bringing about the reform that all of us agree is essential for higher education and K-12 education to be relevant and to really prepare students at every level for the world that they are going to inherit when they finish their studies.
I think if there was any overall agreement, it was that reform is necessary. The conference focuses on innovation and creative ideas for sustainable interventions at different levels. But at the university level, I think that what we brought to the conversation is that the need for reform is not limited to K-12, it exists at the university level as well and that it is intractable, and that it is difficult.
UWN: What kind of reforms are we talking about here?
King: There's a continuum of opinion - everything from we can make a change in curriculum design, we ought to be focused more on preparing people for careers, we ought to be focused on preparing people for life and laying the foundation for lifelong education - to the other side of the continuum, which says we really ought to reform the whole system.
We ought to think differently about what it means to educate people and how we educate people in a world that is becoming more interdependent, more global, more technologically based. There was a range of opinions, which is healthy. I don't think there was a particular place where everyone landed and embraced exactly the same point of view.
UWN: Has the debate moved on since last year's WISE? Are some issues in sharper relief?
King: There were many comments about that. A year ago nobody could have anticipated the Arab Spring, they also could not have anticipated the severity of the economic crisis.
What's been brought into focus around the world is how closely correlated education is to everything from mortality rates to the empowerment of women and the ability to plan family sizes, all the way up to informing policy and embracing emergent technologies and educating people to be mentally agile to be able to anticipate social changes that appear to be happening at greater and greater rapidity.
My sense was people were really sobered by the rapid social changes taking place in the last year and were thinking about the implications for educators in terms of preparing young people to deal with this fluidity.
UWN: Did any consensus come out of this on which direction higher education needs to move?
King: I'm not sure there was consensus. Some of us at this conference, I'll be frank, felt there was more identification of problems than identification of solutions, but I think that is normal given the times and the complexity of the issues we were talking about.
There was discussion on current higher education systems, and how much is the focus on national and regional and how much is global. Many people said it is so difficult to get to the global [level]. Before that you have to work through all the politics and culturally specific things and the economic considerations that impact on your national education systems.
UWN: You announced a new collaboration with Microsoft at the conference, what does that involve?
King: Our partnership with Microsoft from their perspective is an extension to higher education of their Partners in Learning programme for K-12.
As an international group of 300 to 400 university presidents from more than 100 nations, we bring to them a very high level focus group that they don't have access to otherwise. Microsoft is genuinely interested in bringing their expertise to higher education in a meaningful way.
The idea is to design a series of academic summits where Microsoft proposes bringing together chief academic officers, chief executive officers and chief information officers from different organisations regionally, to troubleshoot on the kind of issues that come from the ground up in the region in which the summit is being held, and then think about the appropriate applications of technology - these were their words - in the circumstances described to them.
This is still at the concept phase. But we had a very powerful statement during the Q&A period at WISE from a faculty member from Senegal saying how can Microsoft have an impact when we don't have reliable electricity or water or even support for the basic curriculum. If I'm trying to introduce online learning or technologies to my students I don't have the technologies that allow me to do that.
We don't know the answer to that yet but when we have a summit in Africa we will engage with those questions and we will talk about how to adapt the technologies to meet the needs of the student populations and the faculty in that particular context.
UWN: What does IAUP bring to Microsoft?
King: It is beyond credibility - they have all the technological capability in the world. They don't need any brand assistance, they don't need any public relations assistance. But we are in the trenches, and we in IAUP collectively oversee the education of hundreds of thousands of students around the world. And we directly interact with the faculties, with the students, with the infrastructures and with the economies with all of our organisations.
For Microsoft that gives them a window to the higher education world they can only conjecture about, they can imagine, they can read about, but they don't have direct contact with.
* Q&As are edited for length and clarity.
US: Challenges facing university presidents
GLOBAL: Building bridges through education - IAUP
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters