Knowledge has the power to shape a nation – and our world

Higher education plays an important and multi-faceted role in society and global development, especially with its emerging role in helping to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – also known as the 2030 Agenda.

At a global level, tertiary education has seen tremendous growth over the past 20 years. During that time frame, the worldwide total enrolment rate in tertiary education has nearly doubled. Currently, there are about 235 million students enrolled in tertiary education globally, representing about 38% of the five-year age group following secondary school completion.

While some countries have experienced an enrolment decline in recent years, every major geographical region of the world has experienced an increase in enrolment over the past 20 years. Enrolment among women has increased at a faster rate than men. The regional areas of Asia, Latin America and Africa have experienced the largest enrolment increases. Increases in enrolment correlate with increases in GDP (gross domestic product) per capita.

However, there is still a large gap between enrolment rates and graduation rates. Nonetheless, some countries have experienced a sharp increase in graduation rates, including Iran, Mongolia, Albania, Columbia and Saudi Arabia.

This data reveals that higher education systems in many countries have moved from an elite system of higher education to a mass system and some countries have moved from a mass system to a universal system.

Using the Trow taxonomy, an elite system of higher education is one where student enrolment is less than 15% of the relevant age group, a mass system is one where student enrolment is between 15% and 50% of the relevant age group and a universal system is one where student enrolment exceeds 50% of the relevant age group.

Towards education for all

The importance of post-secondary education has increased tremendously in the 21st century just as the importance of secondary education increased tremendously in the 20th century.

Education, knowledge and learning are important because they are an engine for economic and social development (for example, job creation, civic engagement, cultural development, scientific-technological progress and, more recently, environmental sustainability).

Education at all levels has been a key driver for change because it continually cultivates learning (that is, knowledge consumption and production) through teaching, research and service.

As such, over the past several decades there has been increased harmonisation of higher education systems within and across countries.

Harmonisation in higher education refers to the coordination of educational programmes across institutions to ensure comparable qualifications and academic standards.

Harmonisation does not imply uniformity of the curriculum or homogenisation of teaching or the mediocritisation of standards. Rather, the aim of harmonisation is to improve academic quality by promoting the comparability and coherence of degree programmes between institutions, within and across countries.

Harmonisation is typically achieved through articulation agreements which allow for greater mobility, participation and engagement of learners (for example, the Bologna Process).

In addition to harmonising higher education systems, societies must continue to find ways to remove lingering barriers and constraints that inhibit people from fully participating in higher education and lifelong-lifewide learning opportunities.

This is not only important to promote economic and social development, but it is also important in the context of historical practices of exclusion.

Historically, higher education was intended to be a vehicle to prepare the next generation of society’s so-called elite, presumably to maintain the social and economic status quo, but higher education in the modern era must be based on human rights, democratic principles and sustainable development.

Reparative futures

Because knowledge is power, historically some have used access to education and learning as a means to control people’s civic participation, economic status and social mobility; in short, to control individual empowerment and autonomy.

Thus, the movement to treat education (at all levels) and learning (in all its forms) as a human right is, at the most fundamental level, a way to empower all people by equipping them with education and knowledge, and in doing so, starting them down the road to becoming more self-determining human beings.

It is by learning from the past that humanity can build a better and brighter reparative future for all – futures that aim to repair historical injustices.

Higher education institutions can therefore be viewed as conduits through which reparative futures can be cultivated by enabling people to increase their personal agency. All else being equal, a more educated and informed citizenry is better equipped to address viable solutions to lingering social and economic problems such as poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and poor health.

To that end, higher education systems help reduce the knowledge gap between and among individuals across different social strata, thereby enabling the possibility of social change. Higher education enables individuals to be skilled in various spheres, making them eligible for opportunities they would not otherwise possess.

However, while higher education offers several advantages, unemployment and poverty still remain high in some countries. Some graduates struggle to find employment or to create employment for themselves.

Within this context, some contend that higher education is not ‘fit for purpose’ since it produces graduates whose knowledge and skills may not be conducive to existing labour market demands or contemporary social conditions. This mismatch is further complicated by the fact that the demands of the labour market change over time, as do social conditions.

A mindset of rights and justice

Higher education has an important and multi-faceted role to play in shaping current and future aspects of society through learning from the past. The global increase in enrolment and the harmonisation occurring in higher education in some regions indicate the growing importance of lifelong-lifewide learning.

However, some people in some areas still face barriers that inhibit their ability to fully participate in higher education opportunities.

Therefore, in order for the world to progress, it is vital that humanity shifts from a mindset of power and control to a mindset of rights and justice. Higher education must therefore act as catalyst for the attainment of the 2030 Agenda, which positively contributes to economic and social development around the world.

To that end, mass and universal higher education play a meaningful role in developing reparative and restorative futures. The idea of the power of knowledge to shape a nation can also be expressed though verse.

The North Star

To Frederick Douglass*
By Patrick Blessinger

With your words, you turned the page for freedom;
a prolific and brilliant writer, a charismatic orator,
a modern-day prophet of truth and moral persuasion,
and a testament to the enduring power of language:
you became the voice for emancipation and liberty.
With your character, you shaped a young nation;
a person of immense forgiveness and reconciliation,
a person of great moral authority and deep integrity,
an example that one person can change the world:
you became the father of the civil rights movement.
With your courage, you steered a fledgling country;
a person of incredible determination and courage,
a person of astonishing boldness, resiliency and grit,
and a testimony to the fortitude of the human spirit:
you became the North Star that enlightened the world.

*Note: Known as the father of the civil rights movement, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery to become a prominent social reformer, orator, writer, intellectual and statesman. Through incredible determination and brilliance, he helped shape the American nation. He became one of the most eminent leaders of the human rights movement in the 19th century and a towering figure in American and world history.

Patrick Blessinger is president and chief scientist at the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association. Tendai Douglas Svotwa is a senior lecturer in graduate studies at Botho University, Botswana. Serpil Meri-Yilan is an assistant professor of languages in the school of foreign languages in the department of interpretation and translation at AICU (Agri Ibrahim Cecen University), Turkey.