Long-term thinking needed in higher education

For almost half a century, several international governmental organisations consistently provided both a forum for discussion of global higher education issues and some capacity for policy analyses and supporting research.

These organisations produced policy documents, published monographs, books and journals, sponsored international meetings, and from time to time financed and coordinated research projects on key international issues. They also collected statistics and occasionally issued policy documents relating to global and region-wide higher education issues.

Perhaps most importantly, they provided forums for discussion – forums that brought together higher education leaders, researchers and often government officials concerned with higher education. The ability to work on a global scale and to bring together multiple constituencies is of special significance, especially for such a complex endeavour as higher education and research.

There is sufficient evidence to note that in the past few years, two of the leading international governmental organisations involved in these activities, UNESCO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), have largely left the field of higher education, creating a considerable vacuum. Only the World Bank, a latecomer to the area with activities for the most part limited to occasional policy studies and some research activities, seems to remain active.

This abdication is quite unfortunate because higher education more than ever needs ‘thinking capacity’, analysis of contemporary issues, and ‘convening authority’ for conversations and debates.

It is also quite surprising, given that higher education has never been more important to countries worldwide. Furthermore, academic institutions and systems are increasingly affected by global trends that require comparative analysis and international debate and can benefit from an analysis of ‘best practice’ worldwide.

The past and the present

UNESCO at one time played a useful role in higher education, despite its well-known reputation for bureaucracy and inefficiency. It was the only organisation in the world with full global coverage. It was able to attract representations from the developing countries as well as industrialised nations.

In some countries, UNESCO had a unique connection with top government officials. Several of its regional offices built capacity for higher education research and policy analysis in eastern and central Europe, especially serious during the Cold War period, and in Latin America.

Several journals provided an outlet for analysis and debate, such as Higher Education in Europe, published by the UNESCO European centre for higher education (unesco-cepes), which was closed in 2010. Particularly surprising was closing down Higher Education in Europe and not permitting an interested and well-respected publisher to continue it.

UNESCO’s two world conferences on higher education (held in 1998 and 2009) and several regional meetings were useful – being the forums that brought together government officials, university leaders and researchers. Yet in the past decade, this entire infrastructure has been systematically dismantled.

The OECD, although its basic responsibility was mainly limited to membership in the industrialised world, also played an active and quite useful role. Its programme on institutional management in higher education sponsored annual conferences for academic leaders on relevant topics and published a highly regarded international journal, Higher Education Policy.

The journal was suddenly abolished, again with no thought of handing it to a publisher. The OECD also sponsored a number of research projects such as an analysis of emerging higher education trends in 2030, which resulted in useful books and conferences. Yet all of this seems to be gone, as OECD has moved away from a concern for higher education.

Emblematic of this development is the current situation of Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes; after a feasibility study was conducted, this as-ambitious-as-needed initiative has been put on hold but in reality closed down.

Both organisations, and also the World Bank, from time to time sponsored major reports on key higher education themes. Examples included Peril and Promise, and others. These thoughtful and globally concerned documents sometimes had a significant impact on national policy and more broadly on global thinking about higher education.

Although some of UNESCO’s global higher education initiatives were of mixed quality and with regularly insufficient funding, they brought together almost all countries to think about higher education issues. Major documents and reports were prepared for them.

A knowledge base

It is correctly argued that in a majority of cases, the principal function of international organisations consists of legislative and standard-setting activities, policy advocacy, and policy advising, as well as the launching and implementation of various operational projects; and those activities imply the need for in-house expertise.

The ‘standardisation work’ undertaken by UNESCO and the OECD, in collaboration with other organisations, has been essential for collecting comparative educational statistics. UNESCO collects a range of statistics concerning education, with some coverage of higher education. These efforts had the advantage of global coverage but the disadvantage of only modest accuracy, due in part to a lack of capacity at UNESCO and to the reliance of what was provided by governments around the world.

One has the impression that there is less attention to statistics now. OECD statistics tended to be more accurate and comprehensive, but covered only the OECD member countries with a few countries added.

Implications of abdication

Unfortunately, no other organisations offer the services or the broad perspectives that have disappeared with the abdication of UNESCO and OECD. The World Bank continues its small-scale concern with global higher education issues, but does not sponsor meetings or involve relevant stakeholders.

A large number of regional and single-purpose conferences take place, such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s biannual World Class University meeting. The British Council’s Going Global conference and the Qatar Foundation’s WISE conference bring together a smaller number of participants, but seem to have no key themes and little, if any, lasting significance.

Organisations such as the European Association for International Education, or EAIE, attract an increasing number of global participants to their annual meetings. However, in general, such organisations are concerned with specific aspects of higher education; in EAIE’s case with the theme of internationalisation and student mobility or, in the case of the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and excellence, with university rankings.

Agencies and funders are typically driven by the current ‘hot topic’ or fad in higher education. The current concern with ‘workforce training’ and employability of graduates is a case in point; a few agencies and foundations have taken an interest in these themes with an international perspective, but they do not have a global view nor an interest in creating a knowledge base for international discussion.

One can predict that the next set of ad hoc conferences and short-term research projects may be on massive open online courses and other elements of distance education. While these short-term concerns are certainly relevant and deserve attention, nothing can replace continuing investment in a broad international perspective on global higher education.


The solution to the problem of a lack of ‘convening authority’ and ‘thinking capacity’ is not rocket science. It would be best, of course, if an international organisation with appropriate resources and broad acceptability among relevant global constituencies could undertake this responsibility. But this seems unlikely to happen.

It might be possible for an arrangement like the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College, which coordinates the periodic mathematics and science evaluations, is funded by a number of agencies, and has been able to remain active over more than a decade, to undertake the task.

Perhaps a group of regional and national higher education organisations could combine for this task, or perhaps the Qatar Foundation or a similar organisation with considerable resources could underwrite a serious higher education initiative that would go beyond occasional conferences.

There is a desperate need for ongoing international debate, discussion and regular data collection on higher education. At present, we have only a fragmented picture at best.

* Philip G Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Jan Sadlak provided suggestions for this article.


As one of your more mature readers I welcome Philip Altbach’s commentary on the demise of UNESCO’s and OECD’s commitment to higher education policy matters and debate. His well chosen words in firing carefully aimed bullets I sincerely hope will be a wake-up call to those two important agencies who have, as Philip says, “largely left the field of higher education, creating a considerable vacuum”.

I, for one, hope this “unfortunate abdication” and “lack of convening authority” can be reversed as there does not appear to be alternatives lining up on the horizon that have the global command and stature in the international field of education needed to counter what has evaporated, no doubt due to the restricted capacity to maintain and evolve what Philip Altbach has identified as being critically missing.

To my advantage I have much to be grateful from the two UNESCO World Conferences on Higher Education (1998 and 2009) and the many productive OECD/IMHE events of the 1970’s and 80’s (that dates me!) so I am as eager as Philip to see a resurrection or new kid on the block (e.g the Qatar Foundation) to rekindle the voice and knowledge base that has evaporated on global HE policy issues.

However, it will need a significant investment of resource provision and person capacity to move into a high gear again; technology providing the urgent turnaround facility to make it happen quickly. And of course the political willpower.

For my part I will keep up my vigil, in my advancing years, of prompting UNESCO. There is a glimmer of hope that UNESCO Chairs, of which I am one, are responding to many (alright perhaps some!) of the key points Philip rightly makes.

There is a meeting convened in September in Paris with an agenda which hopefully gives time and intent to address what Philip describes higher education as “ ……more than ever needing ‘thinking capacity’, analysis of contemporary issues, and ‘convening authority’ for conversations and debates”.

I hope UNESCO can find this opportune to respond to Philip Altbach in a positive way, at least to some extent. We live in hope but not with high expectations!

Professor Richard Mawditt OBE, UNESCO Chair in Higher Education Management, University of Bath.