UNESCO chief plots pact on global recognition of degrees

UNESCO’s section for higher education will seek approval this year for a plan to move forward on a global convention or pact that would acknowledge the dramatic changes taking place in the sector today and promote cross-border cooperation beyond the regional level, a top UNESCO official said last Thursday.

“The world is moving toward a far more global higher education community, hence the need to build a more equitable and more transparent higher education sector worldwide,” said Paulina González-Pose, chief of UNESCO’s higher education section. If approved, the plan would promote deeper levels of collaboration and provide a frame for sharing good practices.

Speaking to the annual meeting of an international quality assurance organisation in Washington, González-Pose said a confluence of factors, including globalisation, changing migration patterns, advanced technology and the growing diversification of education providers, inspired UNESCO to attempt to develop a global convention on the recognition of qualifications that would parallel those of existing regional conventions.

Officials from 34 countries, representing all regions, attended the meeting convened by the CHEA International Quality Group, or CIQG.

Such a convention would depart from traditional notions of what constitutes a university education. Of particular relevance is the democratisation and massification of higher education in developing countries, which has led to rising demand among students who will require a different approach than more traditional practices based on elitist higher education systems of the past.

Proposal in November

Plans for a global instrument have been in the works since November 2011. González-Pose is scheduled to propose the plan for a global convention to UNESCO board members in November this year, at which time “we will get the go-ahead or [be told to] stop. We don’t know”.

UNESCO’s General Conference has already approved a preliminary proposal on the condition that whatever normative instrument is designed must be articulated with the regional conventions.

While regional conventions have existed for decades, only those in the Asia-Pacific, Europe and Africa regions have been updated in recent years, she said, while regional conventions for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Arab states have not been revised. One challenge will be how to revitalise those regions that are less active.

“There’s relatively little information on why some regional conventions are functioning and others are not,” González-Pose said, adding that a comparative analysis of existing regional conventions would provide a clearer view of key challenges.

Member states to approve

UNESCO member states also must give the plan a green light. If a global convention is approved, UNESCO’s role will be to provide guidance. “We cannot dictate but we hope to be able to provide intellectual leadership… in a forward-looking manner,” González-Pose said.

In an interview with University World News, González-Pose acknowledged that the concept of a global convention is “a little bit revolutionary”, suggesting that some stakeholders may have reservations. But, she said, standing still is not an option. “Higher education is changing, and people talk and talk about it. But we have to do something.”

González-Pose listed a number of trends that will have implications for how a global recognition system for diplomas and degrees would work.

In addition to the diversification of the student population, there’s a diversity of providers, including for-profit colleges and online courses and degrees. Meanwhile, higher education institutions are increasingly defining their missions and values in global terms.

In contrast to more traditional times, questions of quality increasingly focus on outcomes rather than inputs. And despite cutbacks in government funding in many countries, governmental authorities are increasingly assessing the higher education sector in terms of its impact on the nation’s productivity and its comparative advantages in an international market.

González-Pose said she hoped the creation of a global convention would raise awareness among policy-makers and the public of basic principles, including institutional autonomy, the role and purpose of quality assurance and a recognition of higher education as a public good.

Such an instrument also would not be overly prescriptive and would be flexible enough to accommodate the sometimes “substantial” differences across systems. “Education systems reflect economic, social, political, religious and philosophical differences that must be respected,” she said.

Moving forward, González-Pose said her division will consult broadly with key stakeholders both in the political and education policy sphere while continuing to support regional initiatives to modernise their conventions.

Maria José Lemaitre, executive director of Centro Interuniversitario de Desarrollo, a network of universities in Chile, agreed that Latin America tends to be reluctant to update their convention, noting that universities are “protective” of students, graduates and faculty members because “we tend to think that our system is better than the others”.

González-Pose said UNESCO will continue to sponsor meetings in Latin America aimed at identifying factors that might motivate them to update their conventions.

“There’s a lot of fact-finding we need to do,” she said. “This is a long process. We’re going to go forward and see how far we will get.”