UNESCO reaffirms higher education as a right and a public good

The UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 opened this week in Barcelona in Spain, reaffirming the importance of higher education as a public good and a human right, and underlining the need to promote local and global equity of university access.

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay pointed to major transformations of higher education since the previous UNESCO world higher education conferences in 1998 and 2009, noting a doubling in the number of students enrolled in the past two decades – to 235 million students – and this number is likely to double again over the coming decade.

International mobility is progressing even faster, Azoulay said in her speech opening the three-day conference on 18 May. The number of students pursuing studies outside their country of origin has almost tripled over the past 20 years to reach six million today, and is expected to be eight million by 2025.

World Higher Education Conference 2022. This conference is convened by UNESCO and University World News is the exclusive media partner.

But even with the progress in the past two decades, numbers in higher education are still lagging in developing countries, with just 10% of young people accessing higher education compared to 79% in some richer countries. At the same time inequalities are increasing.

“Immense progress has also been made in terms of equality between men and women, to the point that in 2020 there are 113 women enrolled in higher education for every 100 men in the world,” she said. Sub-Saharan Africa is lagging as the only region where there are fewer female than male students in university.

But she also pointed to profound disparities between disciplines: on average worldwide, only one in three engineering students is a woman.

Azoulay noted: “We are facing a real challenge to ensure that education remains a common public good, accessible to all. This presupposes public investments commensurate with the expansion of the student population and its mobility.”

However, resources are poorly distributed and inequalities are increasing: “Public spending per student has increased only in Europe and North America as well as in East and Southeast Asia; in all other regions, it has decreased,” she said.

“UNESCO is based on this ideal and on the conviction that higher education is not and should not become a privilege, but is an integral part of the fundamental right to education,” the director general said.

In order to remain so, education must constantly adapt to changes occurring in the world.

Ada Colau, mayor of host city Barcelona, also pointed to the right to higher education. “There is no possible meritocracy without equity and equality; therefore it is necessary that knowledge and higher education in particular be accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford it.”

Mobility and qualification recognition

Audrey Azoulay pointed to the need to support international mobility in higher education, underlining UNESCO’s success in developing regional conventions on the recognition of qualifications. It is now pushing for ratification of the 2019 Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education.

“We have been able to make life easier for millions of students, while also advancing countries’ development and sharing of knowledge and skills,” said Azoulay.

“Unfortunately, on this issue, which is all too topical, we must do much better,” she said, referring to refugees in particular and noting that more countries need to sign up to the convention.

Qualification recognition will also be extremely important for the integration of refugees in higher education, at a time when only 5% of refugees have higher education degrees.

“Unfortunately, as we know, this has become one of the consequences of the war in Ukraine, [not just] the dicey situation of all those Ukrainian students but also the many foreigners studying in Ukraine.”

The director general concluded: “Here in Barcelona, we are together, fostering the academic idea of the circulation of knowledge.” This is absolutely critical in a world of complexity and challenges like climate disruption, digital revolution and deepening of inequalities. “We need to rely on strong higher education all around the world.”

Higher education as a right

While affirming higher education as a right, a new report was launched at the conference by UNESCO IESALC – the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, Right to Higher Education: A social justice perspective.

It applies a social justice lens to the right to higher education, identifying concerns that must be addressed “to make higher education truly a right to be enjoyed by all throughout life”. The authors said that work on higher education as a human right will ensure analysis of gaps.

Emma Sabzalieva, one of the report authors, told University World News: “We know from a series of international laws and declarations that higher education is a human right. That’s a huge step. But it does not go far enough when we zone in and look at higher education as the evolving right to education.”

Tristan McCowan, professor of international education at University College London, said at the report launch: “It can be tempting for states to focus on basic education and think that higher education will take care of itself at a later point in time.”

But there has been a shift in the international community on this, with growing understanding that they are interrelated, he said, and pointed to the higher education of teachers as being important to basic education.

“There is a temptation for states to go for expansion in any way, at any cost to the higher education system. That isn’t the way to do it,” McCowan said, referring to for-profits, unregulated institutions, regulated low quality higher education, fraudulent diploma mills and more.

“We need to really think whether that is better than nothing,” he said, and not expansion at any cost. “Because that kind of expansion brings very little benefit to individuals. It’s playing into a zero-sum game of some people getting a leg up over others, but it also brings very little aggregate benefit for society.”

The report points to enhancing the quality of schooling to support all types of learners, to widen the pipeline to higher education, and positive discrimination policies for disadvantaged groups.

It also underlines that higher education should be provided to all for free, beginning by targeting equity-deserving groups. Private activity should be regulated to ensure quality and avoid profit-making from higher education.

“One specific aspect that UNESCO can do on the right to higher education, but which needs the support of the international community, is supporting, in particular, refugees and forcibly displaced people, for whom access to higher education is very, very low,” said Sabzalieva. She highlighted the need to recognise prior learning and higher education qualifications as people cross borders.

The future of higher education to 2050

Forward-looking work carried out by UNESCO “recalls that education is and must continue to be a public good,” Azoulay said in her opening speech, noting that this was one of the objectives of the three-day conference.

UNESCO commissioned a report ahead of the conference on Reimagining the Futures of Higher Education Towards 2050.

“Engaging with futures research can help to reimagine higher education of the future and revisit the purposes of higher education in order to address its social, cultural, individual and community value,” the report said.

In a session on the report, António Nóvoa, honorary rector and professor of education at the University of Lisbon, referred to “multiple overlapping crises and challenges” that meant the future of education needed to be reimagined.

For example, none of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals will be achieved without higher education institutions.

“Our responsibility is immense, and that is why we need to reimagine higher education, to build together our transformation looking ahead to 2050 and beyond.” He added: “We will take note of this conference and reinvent higher education for a sustainable future.” This will require great creativity.

“The biggest risk for universities is not being able to take risks.”