Quality assurance, higher education and the SDGs

Noting that higher education lies at the core of many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, the chief of UNESCO's higher education division last week outlined for quality assurance professionals the role they can play in contributing to the success of the initiative.

The outline includes support for programmes that prepare graduates for the needs of the labour market, research aimed at solving global problems and global development, and an embrace of ever-evolving models for teaching, learning and delivering education.

The Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, adopted last year, are a set of 17 priorities that serve as a roadmap for UN planning. Officially known as "Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development", the initiative is the successor to the UN's Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, for 2015, which were established in 2000.

Whereas universal primary education was one of the MDGs, the emphasis now has expanded to all levels of education, including the broader concept of lifelong learning.

"Everybody learns every day, not just students," said Peter Wells, chief of the higher education division of UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Higher education institutions themselves need to be lifelong learners."

Among the target goals the UN aspires to achieve by 2030 is equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, and opportunities to ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills they need to promote sustainable development related to education, global citizenship and cultural diversity.

Higher education also will play a prominent role across most other SDG priorities, which include an end to poverty and inequality, scientific progress in areas such as climate change and economic growth, a major priority of developing countries.

UNESCO already has begun to tap university expertise and cooperation as "incubators of solutions" through its University Twinning and Networking initiative, Wells said.

Wells' remarks came during the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's International Quality Group or CIQG in Washington, which drew attendees from 30 countries.

Quality assurance and the SDGs

Given the skyrocketing demand for higher education around the world, and the rapid proliferation of providers and methods of delivery, Wells said quality assurance – and its philosophy of continuous internal improvement – "must be the foundation" for higher education's approach to the SDGs.

To that end, UNESCO is helping to organise an international conference on quality assurance, likely to be held next year, as part of its Education 2030 Agenda. Among co-sponsors are the CIQG, the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, and the World Bank.

To conference attendees, Wells emphasised the importance of involving teachers and professors in quality assurance planning.

"The foundation must be bottom-up," he said. "It’s an alien concept" in many developing countries, where educators – “who are already overloaded, already underpaid” – will likely view it as one more thing they have to do.

Similarly, he urged higher education officials to lend their support and expertise to education beyond their traditional focus on academic degrees. Examples include short courses or certificate programmes that offer training for specific skills. All too often, he said, "institutions believe that's not their responsibility".

Global convention

UNESCO also is moving forward on plans to establish a global convention that would enhance transparency and build trust among institutions in different parts of the world. As higher education adapts to an increasingly mobile student body, the need for trust is gaining currency.

The global convention will be a mechanism for bridging gaps, among core principles and provisions developed by each of the various regional conventions, several of which have been established in the last several years. (A convention for Latin America and the Caribbean is expected to come in 2018).

Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, former chief of UNESCO's higher education section and senior adviser to CIQG, clarified that the provisions of the existing regional and eventual global conventions are not mandatory.

They are designed to make it easier for the international higher education community to share and exchange knowledge through mutual recognition. "The conventions are not international law," she said.

Yue Kan, an assistant dean of education at Zhejiang University in China, said UNESCO's convention for Asia, forged in Tokyo in 2011, has provided a mechanism through which China's higher education institutions can engage with the wider world.

That link gives universities some leverage in determining domestic policy. China's universities "enjoy very little autonomy [because] the government is very powerful", he said. "This is an opportunity for collaboration."

Wells listed a range of activities within the higher education section. Recent UNESCO projects have focused on developing open access resources and massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in higher education. Making Sense of MOOCs: A guide for policy makers in developing countries, was published last summer jointly by UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning.

Next month, UNESCO will again host Mobile Learning Week, aimed at supporting the world's refugees, who now number more than 21 million.

And UNESCO is in the "embryonic stages" of organising its third World Conference on Higher Education, tentatively set for 2020 in Paris. Wells encouraged conference attendees to "think the unthinkable, imagine the unimaginable about what higher education can be", and post their thoughts on social media – he provided #HEDBlueSky as a hashtag.