I was highly honored tohave been invited to participate in the UNESCO (United NationsEducational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Conferenceon Higher Education held in Paris, France October 5-8, 1998. Themeeting was attended by over 2,700 delegates and guests fromapproximately 175 countries. The official delegates includedMinisters of higher education, members of Parliament, Presidents andChancellors of universities, deans and ambassadors. The invitedguests included academics and researchers from the economic sector,the World Bank, intergovernmental bodies, teacher's associations andstudent unions.
Improvement of highereducation is a major goal of UNESCO as so stated in many of theireducational documents. To illustrate, one document states that "atall appropriate stages of their national planning in general, and oftheir planning for higher education in particular, member statesshould take all necessary measures to ensure that, amongothers:
Higher education isdirected to human development and the progress of society;
Higher educationcontributes to the achievement of the goals of lifelong learning andto the development of other forms and levels of education;and
The funding ofhigher education is treated as a form of public investment andsubject to government priorities.
Stronger links are needed between higher education and the world of work to help face the challenges of increased unemployment in both developed and developing countries.
A series of regionalconferences helped prepare for the world conference. These were heldin Latin America and the Caribbean (Havana, Cuba 1996), Africa(Dakar, Senegal, 1997), Asia and the Pacific (Tokyo, Japan 1997) andArab States (Beirut, Lebanon 1998). Each meeting proposed majorpolicy priorities for that region and the strategies needed toaddress various issues. The documents produced helped prepare theagenda for the World Conference to formulate "A Global Declarationand Action Plan for Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century."Four major themes, evolving from the regional meetings, constitutedthe basis for discussion:
1) Pertinence of HigherEducation. Included topics such as access to higher education,partnerships with the world of work, students and society, women inhigher education, social development and peace.
2) Quality of HigherEducation. Assessing quality in teaching training and research,innovation in higher education curricula and teaching methods, therole of research, accreditation and evaluation systems, distancelearning and the qualitative transformation of highereducation.
3) Management andfinancing of higher education. Public and private investments,managing a changing student population, managing for excellence inteaching, training and research, trends in staffdevelopment.
4) Internationalcooperation. The need for sharing of knowledge and skills, regionaland international partnerships, networking and evaluatinginternational cooperation projects.
The above topics werediscussed in plenary sessions, which were open to both delegates andinvited guests, and also in smaller closed meetings. The languages atthe plenary sessions were Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russianand Spanish. Simulation translations were provided. Many documentswere distributed in numerous languages, including English. Keydocuments can be found at http://www.education.unesco.org.
As is usual in largeconferences, it is impossible to attend all the sessions, even thoseto which one is admitted. However, a great deal is learned throughdiscussion with people one meets. To summarize some of the discussionand presentation comments, the following were heard mostfrequently:
Universities mustplay a different role and the need to re-examine the educationalsystems of all countries is urgent in order to address therequirements and aspirations of those who have to be educated in arapidly changing world.
How do universitiesprepare for the advent of the New Information and CommunicationsTechnology (NICT) age? Teacher preparation is a central issue. The"new" teacher will have to master this new NICT environment as wellas the new subject content.
What buildings,lecture rooms and auditoriums need to be replaced by digital sites orvirtual seats of learning?
Will teachers havethe ability to redefine their roles or be subjected to changesimposed by globalization?
As universities assume adifferent role and new information technologies help build an openeducational system, the present level of information-communicationtechnologies provides a base to begin creating a global system fordistance education. The Conference promoted three specificideas:
1) Broader access inhigher education systems is based on merit and capacity;
2) Improved management ofthese systems is measured in terms of relevance and quality;and
3) Stronger links areneeded between higher education and the world of work to help facethe challenges of increased unemployment in both developed anddeveloping countries.
The conference's GlobalDeclaration and Action Plan for Higher Education in the Twenty-FirstCentury presented the vision. However, the action depends on thefollow-up activities as each country recognizes its responsibilitiesand challenges.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.