COMMONWEALTH: New agency to aid university development

A new agency to aid Commonwealth states in building stronger higher education systems has come a step nearer as Commonwealth education ministers agreed to back further investigation of the plan.

The 17th Commonwealth Conference of Education Ministers in Kuala Lumpur welcomed the findings of a working group which had investigated the possible establishment of a Tertiary Education Facility for the Commonwealth, and agreed that work should begin.

A final decision on the future of the facility will be made at the next ministerial conference in the Bahamas in 2012.

The proposal was first raised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities at the last education ministers meeting in Cape Town in 2006. A working group agreed that there was a case for a facility to provide advice and assistance to member states and national associations on policy, governance and management issues in tertiary education.

In a presentation to the working group in May last year, Sir John Daniel, President of the Commonwealth of Learning, and his colleague, Professor Asha Kanwar, set out what the CTEF could do. This included collecting and disseminating information and best practice in tertiary education in the Commonwealth, facilitating communications and information exchange between governments and institutions in the Commonwealth, advocating certain principles in tertiary education in line with Commonwealth values, and responding to individual requests for policy advice in tertiary education policy and management.

They concluded: "There is already a consensus over the need for a pan-Commonwealth intervention in the development and strengthening of tertiary education systems.... What is needed is a strong and professionally credible entity to help member states to engage in effectively addressing these concerns."

The Malaysian government will host a coordinating secretariat based at the National Higher Education Research Institute at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, to be reviewed after three years.

Daniel told University World News: "What will happen now is that someone will canvass ministers to get an inventory of the volume and type of requests that might come to a CTEF, and also get a decent list of all the players in higher education research and policy who could respond to those requests, either for money or occasionally pro bono."

He expected the Commonwealth of Learning would offer considerable assistance: "COL already does more work in this area than anyone else and we do offer free help in higher education policy to poorer countries because that is our mission. But much of our help is focused on distance learning, ICTs and the quality assurance around them. We don't want to get into mission creep."

The big problem was that the countries needing help most are least able to contribute to providing it. The Commonwealth Higher Education Management Service, which ran from 1993 to 2001, struggled because no-one was prepared to provide long-term funding.

"Right now the project doesn't have much ownership," Daniel said. "The ACU, like COL, is inappropriate simply because neither body is ready to invest in this... The ACU is in a particularly difficult position because they would be spending their members' subscriptions on it."

Since the ACU raised the issue, there has been a change of leadership with the departure of then Secretary General Dr John Rowett. The ACU has an established role in capacity building, particularly in human resources and research management, but as a member organisation is not best placed to advise governments.

It was made clear at the Kuala Lumpur meeting the CTEF would not duplicate or contradict the work of the ACU.

* About £1.4 million has been promised as the ministers reaffirmed their strong support for the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan Endowment Fund in response to the scheme's 50th anniversary appeal.