Global policy forum agrees HE actions to support SDGs

This has been the ‘Year of Education’, with a flurry of global policy statements key to online, open and flexible education, said Gard Titlestad, secretary general of the International Council for Open and Distance Education or ICDE. At a High Level Policy Forum, 130 leaders and policy-makers went a step further, identifying actions that would help higher education to meet the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

“Business as usual will not produce the breakthroughs in social and economic development the world needs,” Titlestad said. “Innovation in how we deliver education, as well as what that education is focused on, are needed for all of our futures.”

The forum, he continued, was “intended to apply regional lenses, to take the temperature and discuss the state of play with regard to online, open and flexible learning contributing to sustainability”. It aimed to make regional voices “visible and action-oriented”.

Participants from Africa, Arab countries, Asia, North America, Oceania and Latin America discussed developments and agreed on regional agendas for action, at the forum titled “Higher Education for the Sustainable Future We Want – The way ahead for online, open and flexible learning: Opportunities and actions”. University World News was there.

All regions agreed on the need for greater investment in higher education if it is to help the world meet the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, and highlighted the crucial issues of equitable access, learner support, the skills gap and international qualifications.

Education was not only a driver of development and key to reducing inequality, but was also essential to accelerating progress towards achieving other SDGs, said the ICDE in a statement afterwards.

The forum

The forum organised by the ICDE with UNESCO, the Commonwealth of Learning and the Open Education Consortium, was hosted by the University of South Africa – UNISA – in Pretoria on 17 October, a day after the conclusion of the 26th ICDE World Conference held at Sun City north of Johannesburg in South Africa.

It followed the UNESCO-ICDE Global High Level Policy Forum on “Online, Open and Flexible Higher Education for the Future We Want”, held in Paris in June, which was attended by more than 150 participants from 55 countries.

The Paris forum itself followed meetings including UNESCO’s World Education Forum at Incheon in Korea in May, and forums in Bali and Qingdao, China. The Incheon and Qingdao gatherings produced declarations.

The aim in Paris was to take forward declarations from those meetings and turn statements into actions to strengthen educational equity, access and quality – and particularly to respond to the urgent need for more higher education up to 2030 in the face of massive student demand.

In the words of Professor Mandla Makhanya, vice-chancellor of UNISA: “Just expanding existing universities or building new ones based on classroom teaching will not meet the demand or the need for higher education in the developing world.”

The final draft of Education 2030: A framework for action, said Titlestad, was due to be adopted by governments on 4 November. It has as Target 3, point 43:

“A well-established, properly regulated tertiary education system supported by technology, open educational resources and distance education modalities can increase access, equity, quality and relevance, and narrow the gap between what is taught at tertiary education institutions and what economies and societies demand. The provision of tertiary education should be progressively free, in line with existing international agreements.”

The bottom line

At the forum in Pretoria, delegates split into regional groups to brainstorm strategies and actions to advance open, distance and online education globally. The organisers found commonalities across regions and delegations, including the needs to:
  • • Strengthen quality assurance processes and practices in higher education.
  • • Make available affordable broadband infrastructure to more people throughout the developing and developed world.
  • • Implement policies and supports for learners often unable to access higher education, to ensure their ready access and success.
  • • Implement policies and practices that support the widespread access and use of open educational resources.
  • • Treat online learning equally with face-to-face learning.
  • • Invest in professional development for faculty and staff engaged in supporting learners.
  • • Strengthen collaboration between universities and with employers so as to narrow the skills gap and ensure the relevance and value of university education.
  • • Engage and involve students in the planning and development of higher education.
James Glapa-Grossklag, president of the board of the Open Education Consortium, stressed the “need for policy-makers to support the adoption of open educational resources through action around copyright, professional development and resource sharing".

The forum developed preliminary action plans for each region “aimed at leveraging higher education to help achieve sustainable development worldwide".

“The engagement of higher education in the construction of a global vision and pathway for Education 2030 is critical," said the ICDE.

"With societies moving from a post-industrial information society to a knowledge economy, higher education, as a knowledge producer, has become a major force in the emerging global knowledge society.”

Some conclusions

Dr Bakary Diallo, rector of the African Virtual University, pointed out at the forum’s conclusion that education was no longer the exclusive domain of schools and universities, and distance education was no longer the preserve of distance universities.

“This is a fact. With increased integration of educational technology and social media, one can access learning opportunities outside of our institutions.”

He highlighted four keywords for the way forward – communication, implementation, collaboration and monitoring – and saw a role for the ICDE in monitoring progress.

In terms of communicating and implementing, the policy foundation should be engaging effectively with governments, employers, regional players and the private sector. “Let’s be able to communicate effectively with stakeholders, so that they understand where we are coming from, and make them part of the implementation process.”

What he had learned at the forum, said Diallo, was the importance of collaboration within and between regions to solve problems. “In terms of sharing, one thing that came through strongly in some regions is that we need to share best practices and open educational resources.”

Resources were a common problem for the global South. “It’s very important that we learn who is doing what – this will be a great source of sharing.”

It was equally important to clearly demonstrate how open, flexible and online education was contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals – including Goal 4 on education quality – Diallo continued.

Finally, given that most innovations in the sector were being driven by private initiatives, it was crucial for open and distance institutions to engage far more actively in research and innovation “if we want to claim that we are true leaders in this field”.