GLOBAL: World conference a success? Yes and no

Was that it? The three-plus days of Unesco's 2009 World Conference on Higher Education flashed past in a flurry of plenaries, round tables and parallel workshops. Those with memories of the first conference in 1998 were not surprised to discover that some of the debates had barely altered in tone and content in the intervening decade. Others were disappointed the harsh new realities of economic and fiscal meltdown passed largely ignored, other than in ritual references to the need to invest in higher education and research as well as in neutralising toxic assets.

Hours of discussion around abstract themes punctuated by refreshment breaks (often without the refreshments thanks to the inflexible catering staff who punctiliously followed orders even if it meant delegates went hungry and the food risked being spoiled). A crush around the piles of croissants at morning coffee offered the opportunity to make and remake professional contacts with people often known to each other only by their email addresses.

Cynics found comfort in the posturing of vested interests and many confident - read complacent - ministerial interventions.

In some respects they were right. There was a frequent tendency to substitute a description of an ideal state of affairs for the means with which it could be achieved. Everyone was 'for' certain self-evident 'good things' - wider access, quality, autonomy and academic freedom - without setting out the practical steps that needed to be taken.

Delegates commented that the conference was a great success but mainly because it offered the opportunity to see and meet so many people with shared concerns and ideas. In contrast, some found the actual sessions less successful - the need to accommodate many voices made it difficult to go beyond the headlines,

Perhaps the lack of routes to mutually desired solutions is inevitable: it is obvious that conditions in an impoverished and democratically challenged state in say Africa requires different policies to achieve similar ends from those needed in a relatively prosperous post-industrial society in Europe or North America.

And we struggled with the vocabulary - diplomatic speak meets near-universal higher education jargon. The effect for the participants was that there were at least two conferences proceeding in parallel: one for the Unesco-tutored quasi-diplomats and another for the higher education professionals.

The success of WCHE 2009 was that - every now and again - the dialogues matched up. Whether everyone got the message is open to doubt - the physical impossibility of being in the right place at the right time - every time - means that every delegate will take away a slightly different version of the conference.

There will be 1,000 (at least) detailed analyses of the final communiqué, itself a piece of knife-edged bridge building as the political agenda - higher education as a public good - cut across the requirements of access and quality.

Inevitably there were muddles. The Unesco-OECD guidelines for cross border higher education were not endorsed in the final declaration, partly because Unesco, unlike the OECD, has not formally endorsed them. But without them, the international strategy to harmonise quality across private and public providers is compromised.

And, despite an ardent intervention from Professor Brenda Gourley, retiring Vice-chancellor of the UK's Open University, the opportunities afforded by the new information and communication technologies received too little attention for some delegates.

The significance of regional collaboration was recognised - a reaction against the uniform application of one model, or one solution, in all situations.

If there was a lesson from 1998 it is that the pace of change is frenetic and could not have been anticipated. There were signs of change in one key area: the role of private providers. A cloud on the horizon in 1998, these have mushroomed since although projection of world domination by global giants - the great fear in 1998 - has not materialised.

Private providers are now widespread and countries are working pragmatically to ensure that quality on both sides - private and public - is maintained. That this growth has been fastest outside the mature higher education systems of Europe and the developed world should come as no surprise: that an accommodation is clearly being reached might.

But the communiqué tells only part of the story. It will serve as a framework for the continuing discussions that the internet - now far more omnipresent than in 1998 - will make possible across jurisdictions, cultures and time zones. Some will be bilateral, others within the frameworks that have emerged out of the conference.

Even before the communiqué appeared (rather belatedly) on the conference web site, the follow-up discussion had begun. Small matter that the next constitutional stage is for the document to feed into the Unesco General Conference in October.

It is the detailed conversations that will impact on policy and practice. If the 1998 WCHE achieved anything - and some cynics point to the incomplete to-do list from then - it was dragging the Bretton Woods institutions shamefacedly into recognising the role of higher education within a holistic education system.

Institutions such as the World Bank - whether it was true or not that prior to the millennium the bank had a priority on basic education - can now point to their role in promoting discussion on the big themes in higher education.

WCHE 2009 is not likely to provoke such a monumental sea-change but it will be recognised for what it did achieve: a focus on the needs of African higher education and the consensus around the international discourse of higher education.

Was it a good thing to wait more than 10 years before a second WCHE? On the basis of 2009, yes and no.

Yes, because the conference offers an opportunity to stand back and identify the big trends that will make or break the ability of universities to respond to our diverse and diversifying world. No, because the pace of change means that more frequent exchange of information and experience is needed for policy-makers and practitioners to keep pace.

Yes, because organising a conference of this nature is a mammoth undertaking that stretches the Unesco bureaucracy and budget. No, because more frequent discussion is necessary. Unesco has shown it can separate out the diplomats and politicians to allow the sector its say.

But does it need to jet everyone to Paris to achieve this objective? Internet-based forums are almost as effective. And there is no unseemly scrum for the coffee and croissants either.