Takeaways from 2022’s World Higher Education Conference

The year 2022 has been a big one for the international higher education community as we saw the once-in-a-decade event, the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 (aka third WHEC or WHEC 2022), taking place in Barcelona, Spain, in May.

It seems coincidental that all three WHECs have happened amid major global crises, with the previous two linked with the global financial crises in 1998 and 2009 and this year’s overshadowed by the worldwide impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the global crises were regrettable, they also created great momentum for higher education stakeholders to rethink the fundamentals of higher education. Indeed, major challenges to higher education on this scale often catalyse opportunities to reset our understanding of higher education towards a more peaceful and sustainable future for humanity and the planet.

Unlike the previous two WHECs that ended up with the release of a declaration and a communiqué respectively, the third WHEC was informed by a new roadmap, Beyond Limits: New ways to reinvent higher education. So what are the takeaways from that and the discussions at WHEC 2022?

The human rights-based approach

The human rights-based approach to higher education has been a signature position of UNESCO since its founding over 75 years ago in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II. In the field of education, this rights-based approach is anchored in several UNESCO conventions and other normative instruments, including the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education.

As reconfirmed in the roadmap, “UNESCO sees higher education as an integral part of the right to education and a public good”. Indeed, education, including higher education, is increasingly becoming a necessity rather than a luxury if we want to grow and thrive in both work and life in a fast-changing world.

To secure people’s rights to higher education as a public good, governments need to meet the international benchmarks of “allocating at least 4% to 6% of gross domestic product to education and allocating at least 15% to 20% of public expenditure to education”, as proposed by the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and reiterated in the Incheon Declaration. Furthermore, a more significant proportion of countries’ financial resources should be allocated to higher education.

Competing demands from other public service sectors threaten the right to higher education, with shrinking government revenues being a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. UNESCO calls for actions to prioritise, protect and increase domestic finance for education, including higher education.

To advance a human rights-based approach to higher education, public investment is key. With much-needed investment, the future of higher education will see more systems moving from the elite stage to massification and even universal access to higher education supported by inclusive, sustainable, equitable, well-funded policies and practices.

Quality assurance

Although learning outcomes and the ways to achieve them are not the focus of the roadmap, they are the main concerns of good qualifications frameworks which the roadmap promotes in line with its lifelong learning approach to higher education.

Indeed, when higher education is small or still at the early stage of development, inputs-related indicators can serve as leverage for securing more investment from the government and other stakeholders. In an era of higher education massification, outputs are more relevant as quality eventually depends on students achieving the expected learning outcomes.

In the future, learning outcomes will be more holistic to include not only knowledge and understanding, skills and competencies, but also values and attitudes, so that we nurture well-rounded professionals who are also “fully-fledged citizens who cooperatively address complex issues”.

This requires that we pay more attention to the learning process in which learners interact with teachers and their fellow learners, as well as other learning partners and the learning environment. The overall aim is to ensure that the process is pedagogically learner-centred leading to the achievement of comprehensive learning outcomes, including cognitive and non-cognitive competencies and transversal skills.

We will also need to increase the relevance of learning outcomes to both work and life. A post of ‘chief learning scientist’ can be created at higher education institutions to coordinate institution-wide teaching and learning strategy and serve as a liaison point, ensuring the alignment of external quality assurance and internal quality assurance as well as acting as a bridge between the supply and demand sides of the learning programmes.

Flexible learning pathways

The roadmap proposes a transition “from a hierarchical and weakly connected archipelago of institutions and programmes to an integrated system with diversity of programmes and flexible learning pathways”.

This transition is revolutionary and has been accelerated by the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. It can break the long-time monopoly of conventional higher education institutions and allow new learning providers – especially those close to the demand side, such as businesses and professional bodies and those empowered by innovative technologies – to provide higher education programmes.

According to a background paper for the third WHEC on the quality and relevance of programmes in higher education, flexibility can also be reflected in “moving beyond formal education, to embrace, credit and officially recognise innovative education models (formal, non-formal and informal) to enhance opportunities for learners”.

In these circumstances, learning will be more flexible in terms of time, length and venue, making it possible for people to have multiple entry and exit points to higher education and to learn at any time and in any place.

National qualifications frameworks, subject-specific quality standards and programme development templates constitute the basic national academic infrastructure for learning outcomes of different types and levels of programmes across the country to be comparable, transferable and stackable with one another under common quality frameworks.

They are thus critical tools in facilitating the equivalency and recognition arrangements between and among different qualifications and learning programmes.

National learning management systems, such as interconnected and learner-centred digital credit bank systems at the systemic and institutional levels, comprise the other essential academic infrastructure to be put in place. They will ensure that credits earned from different higher education providers can be recognised and accumulated, leading to the award of micro-credentials and full qualifications.

We might foresee that higher education institutions don’t need to be excellent in every subject area and domain of their activities in the future. They can also play a qualification- or degree-awarding role by validating learning experiences and credits from a range of providers.

In other words, learners can earn credits from different learning providers to DIY their own individualised qualifications to be assessed by recognised providers in line with the national qualifications framework.

Promoting social mobility

Inclusion and equity are two of the many keywords highlighted in the roadmap for the third WHEC. Inclusion can bring more students from different social backgrounds, especially disadvantaged groups, to a bigger talent pool and enable them to attain upward social mobility after graduation. With social mobility, we can avoid clear-cut social stratification, thereby strengthening the social cohesion of a country.

Necessary affirmative actions should be put in place to support learners from disadvantaged groups to gain access to quality higher education and flourish subsequently in their careers and in their lives.

Higher education should not perpetuate the existing social stratification. A real test to its equity and inclusiveness is the ability of higher education to promote social mobility.

There is a need to establish mechanisms, like Social Mobility Watch, to monitor the yearly intake and retention rates of various tiers and types of higher education institution by student according to their different social and economic backgrounds and to trace their employment destinations after graduation.

Higher education should also facilitate the social circulation of all citizens when it comes to changing and rotating roles, status and responsibilities, making it possible for a society to reboot and refresh its social dynamics regularly and increase the coherence, innovativeness, resilience and competitiveness of its people and society as a whole.

Institutional autonomy and social accountability

These two seemingly conflicting arguments have been the two principles guiding the development of higher education worldwide. When education systems have been small, especially when there has been less government spending on higher education, institutional autonomy has tended to speak louder than other arguments.

The pioneer countries in higher education usually have a long tradition of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. In contrast, latecomer countries may launch their higher education systems with more coordination from the government.

Asia and the Pacific is a region where most countries are latecomers with their higher education systems influenced by different traditions originating from the pioneer countries. In this regard, the fundamental issue is the relationship between governments and higher education institutions.

We can anticipate that the relationships between governments and higher education institutions will be more balanced in the future, with external regulations and internal innovations and alignment mutually nurturing and complementing each other. Regulated institutional autonomy and ‘autonomy for accountability’ will be the ways forward.

Internationalisation of higher education

The roadmap mentions UNESCO’s conventions on academic recognition to promote mobility and inter-university cooperation. Indeed, the recognition issue has long been the entry point for UNESCO regarding higher education. The Tokyo Convention for Asia and the Pacific has already entered into force and has 12 ratifications as of October 2022.

The Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education, adopted in 2019 in Paris, welcomed Japan last September as the 17th ratification in the world and the first ratification in Asia and the Pacific. This positive development brings us closer to the 20 ratifications required for the Global Convention to enter into force.

Joining and aligning with international normative instruments such as these conventions are critical indicators for measuring the status of higher education internationalisation at both system and institutional levels.

We are yet to see the first ratification of the Tokyo Convention and the Global Convention on academic recognition from Southeast Asian countries. Ratification will help remove the recognition barriers to student and professional mobility in the region and beyond.

Student mobility has been high on the internationalisation agenda, as many traditional destination countries have faced declining enrolments of their domestic students due to fast-ageing populations. However, other considerations have also driven student mobility, such as competition for young talent from a more significant international talent pool.

In July, we witnessed the launch of a two-year work plan for establishing a common higher education space in Southeast Asia in Hanoi, Viet Nam. This event was a milestone for kicking off the harmonisation processes for higher education systems in the region. In addition, regional partners in Southeast Asia aim to catalyse internationalisation through a critical mass of student mobility under a new ASEAN Branded Scholarship.

Digital transformation of higher education

The roadmap states that “technologies play an increasingly central role in higher education”. Although there are gaps and disparities among countries in the maturity of frontier technologies and their applications in higher education, the rapid developments in computer power, algorithms, big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and internet reach “have transformed teaching, learning and research, as well as networking and collaboration within and across nations”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide, given unequal access to the technologies for delivering higher education programmes.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) continue to gain momentum towards greater expansion in the Asia and Pacific region with the establishment and functioning of national MOOC portals, such as Indonesia Cyber Education Institute, JMOOCs, KMOOCs, M-MOOCs, XuetangX, ThaiMOOC and so forth. Some are financed by governments, some managed by the private sector and some run by consortiums of higher education institutions.

There will soon be more mature and advanced learning analytics empowered by big data and AI to help diagnose teaching and learning activities at institutional, subject, programme and individual session levels. Big data generated by higher education institutions on a daily basis will be more efficiently and ethically used by university leaders, administrators, faculty and students, as well as other higher education actors and stakeholders.

University governance should also go digital with a whole set of applications to support the workflow of different administrative activities. These activities include finance; staff recruitment, evaluation and professional development; student affairs management; international partnership and cooperation; travel and leave management; resource mobilisation; public information and outreach, among others.

A one-stop-shop, web-based daily operation system will allow higher education institutions to go paperless via online tools for their daily administrative work.

ICT infrastructure, institutional capacity-building, and teachers’ professional development are essential for the digital transformation of higher education. We hope that in the future, the gaps in internet speed and penetration can be narrowed so that higher education institutions can have better public infrastructure when it comes to promoting digital transformation across every domain of their activities.

Foundation for the future

The third World Higher Education Conference provided us with a chance to rethink and reimagine the fundamentals of higher education – around the three critical missions of teaching and learning, research and social engagement – from the perspectives of access, quality and equity. The roadmap and open knowledge products submitted to the third WHEC set a good foundation for further national, regional and global stakeholder debates.

The multiple cause-and-effect chains described here are not deterministic but somewhat hypothetical. Considering that the national higher education dynamics and ecosystems are very diverse and uncertain, convergent trends discussed here will serve as benchmarks to inform different countries for their national adaptations. We look forward to collecting renewed thinking and actions as we navigate towards 2030 and beyond.

Libing Wang is chief of Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development at UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok, Thailand. This editorial is an excerpt from a keynote delivered at the Asia-Pacific Quality Network Annual Academic Conference 2022 on 26 November 2022 in Singapore. For a full transcript, please see UNESCO Bangkok here.