UNESCO sends mixed messages about higher education

Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, signalled that her organisation’s focus on primary education was expanding to include more work supporting higher education, at the World Innovation Summit for Education held in Doha last week. But insiders suggested otherwise.

“For far too long the international community was focused only on primary education,” Bokova said in an interview with University World News. “This is why we want to focus on secondary and tertiary education.

“We are helping a lot of countries strengthen their tertiary education.”

Recent research suggests that UNESCO’s ambitious Education for All project, which aims to provide primary education for all children worldwide, has stalled. Although there was initially progress after six education goals were set in 2000, few are on track to be completed by the 2015 deadline and many are far behind.

Regardless of the struggle with basic education, Bokova argued for a more holistic approach that includes higher education and lifelong learning. She pointed to teacher training and technical and vocational institutes as priorities.

“We are helping countries develop science education because we think it is important,” she told University World News, pointing to prizes UNESCO awards to young women scientists in partnership with L’Oréal.

Bokova spoke of her concern about how ‘brain drain’ impacts on moves to strengthen higher education. “In many countries the question is whether it’s worth investing in higher education when the bran drain attracts these young people to more developed countries.”

She went on to describe initiatives to create research and study opportunities, to motivate talented graduates to stay in their home countries.

Haddad disagrees

But Georges Haddad, director of the Education Research and Foresight branch of UNESCO, suggested that such discussion about higher education was nothing more than talk. When asked about details of this shift in focus, he responded bluntly.

“Words. Promises. I don’t think we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “The most important thing to UNESCO is just the appearance. We say ‘Education for All’ and ‘lifelong learning’ and the ministers are happy because they listen to what they want to hear.”

Haddad dismissed the claim that UNESCO is restoring its work on higher education in any meaningful manner. “Higher education was reduced and the division has been completely destroyed,” he said, pointing out that he used to head the division.

“Let’s speak frankly. UNESCO used to be a laboratory of ideas, and look what it produced in the 1960s and 1970s. Now it’s conservative. They are completely scared of political sanctions.” This year, for instance, the United States withdrew funding when the agency voted to recognise Palestine as a state.

The relatively new Education Research and Foresight department that Haddad now heads is intended to reintroduce that element of experimentation to UNESCO. Haddad will invite ideas from all over the world on how to improve education at all levels.

He offered one explanation as to why previous efforts to improve higher education were dismantled. “Since new powers are taking the lead at UNESCO – China, for example – they decided that higher education is not a concern for global citizenship,” he said.

However, recent UNESCO literature concurs with Bokova in drawing new attention to higher education.

“US$3.1 billion of aid to post-secondary education never reaches the educational systems of developing countries as it is used to fund foreign students in donor countries,” reads a press release detailing results of the most recent review of Education for All.

“The cost of one Nepalese student’s scholarship in a developed country could give 229 students access to secondary education at home.”

Interesting time for UNESCO

These mixed messages come at an interesting time for UNESCO.

Bokova, who last month formally launched her bid for a second term as director general when her current four-year term ends next year, is hoping that the need for continuity for the Education for All (EFA) campaign – which ends in 2015 – will be an important argument to bolster her bid.

She has been attending international gatherings, including WISE in Doha, to garner support from governments after a tough year at the helm of the UN agency in Paris.

Bokova said in a speech to the UNESCO executive board on 8 October, widely seen as her manifesto for a second term:

“I am persuaded that we can [revive] a hope of stability and equality in this insecure world by building knowledge-based societies in which every individual is able to make use of information to change the world – societies in which there is freedom of expression, universal access to knowledge, quality education and cultural diversity.”

As lead agency of the EFA initiative she did not, however, mention higher education in her presentation to the board, but indicated a closer focus on skills development for employment, and on education for sustainable development.

Her stated objectives for the period 2014-21 were to “continue to shape the global education agenda – to reach the EFA goals and to place education at the heart of the new global sustainability agenda”.

She added, with a nod to the outcome of the Rio+20 Earth Summit on Sustainable Development held in June in Brazil: “We will emphasise education for sustainable development, to develop skills, values and behaviours for new times.”

UNESCO insiders said there was a feeling internationally that UNESCO had not done a good enough job promoting education, including EFA, in part because of the agency’s budgetary problems, which are more severe than for some other UN agencies.

This could lead to a smaller role for UNESCO in post-2015 education issues, whether or not Bokova is re-elected.

When EFA was first put in train, many country representatives pointed out that it excluded higher education, and experts suggest there may now be moves to include higher education in post-2015 EFA.

But so far strong leadership has not emerged internationally on this issue, and insiders indicate that Bokova has not been pushing higher education in any of her meetings or speeches internationally.

* Yojana Sharma contributed to this article from Paris.