The World Conference on Higher Education:
The long journey for a utopia becoming reality

Marco Antonio Rodrigues Dias,
Director of the Division ofHigher Education

World Conference on Higher Education: Vision and Action
Paris - 5 October 1998

















Today begins the first World Conference on Higher Education. It represents the culmination of a lengthy process. By all estimates, the many activities surrounding the conference have been a success. Over 180 countries are present here, as well as representatives of the academic community, including teachers, students and other stakeholders in higher education.

But, can we talk about the end of a process?

This would be to limit the scope and objectives of the conference. This conference itself is, certainly, the end of a phase. But the ideas and propositions it generates should create a new dynamic and start a process which is in fact, becoming a permanent process of reflection and action to improve the quality and relevance of higher education, by making it more efficient in the building of a more equitable society.

The enormous activity surrounding the conference does not satisfactorily explain the interest that the debate on higher education has sparked around the world. From the privileged vantage point, that is UNESCO, we have been able to observe that higher education is on the agenda of practically every country in the world. This is normal. Educational levels must, by their nature, respond continuously to social changes. In other words, institutions of higher education are, like societies, in a permanent state of transition: a condition which is fundamental to the modern concept of crisis. We can therefore say that higher education institutions should be living in a permanent state of crisis.

And our present day society is undergoing radical transformations. One has only to read this week's newspapers where two items stand out.

1. First, the economic crisis. It affects everybody and, on this very day, the finance ministers of the world's richest countries are meeting to try to identify measures to curb the crisis, measures intended to prevent the "domino" effect spreading from developing to industrialized countries. It seems that a consensus has been reached based on the assumption that the crises produces chain reactions that go beyond national borders.

Governments are sometimes rendered powerless against the excessive fluctuations of market mechanisms. What can, and should, institutions of higher education do in this context to maintain a positive social outlook; to protect public institutions, as well as to identify solutions and regulations to control the new "Leviathan" ?

2. We also note that this conference is taking place thirty years after the events of May 1968 - events which shock society as well as higher education institutions throughout the world. This coincidence is obvious, but I would draw your attention to a particular detail. We witness every day former "sixty-eighters", revolutionaries in times past and reformers today, rising to positions of power in many countries of the world. Yesterday for instance (4 October 1998) President Fernando Cardoso was re-elected President of Brazil. In 1968, a young exiled professor, he took part in marches and demonstrations in the "quartier latin" in Paris. What message can this conference give to these leaders ?

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This brings to mind an observation by a former Nobel Prize winner in Literature, the Mexican writer Octavio Paz (1914-1998 ), that " the search for the future ends inevitably with the conquest of the past". May’ 68 marked, in Europe as in many other countries on other continents, the end of an era in which institutions of higher education, particularly universities, could allow themselves to be the exclusive preserve of the elite, and to deny priority consideration to the search for solutions to the pressing problems of society.

In recent times, changes have accelerated, and have become so numerous and diversified that even a definition of what higher education is has become an arduous task indeed. From a pragmatic point of view, we define as higher education all types of education (academic, professional, technical, artistic, pedagogical, long distance learning, etc..) provided by universities, technological institutes, teacher training colleges, etc... , which are normally intended for students having completed a secondary education, and whose educational objective is the acquisition of a title, a grade, certificate, or diploma of higher education.

Within this very broad definition, the analysis of the evolution of higher education institutions, in the course of the past thirty years reveals that their basic mission remains and will remain attached to four principal goals:

1- The development of new knowledge ( the research function).
2- The training of highly qualified personnel ( the teaching function ).
3- The provision of services to society.
4- The ethical function , which implies social criticism.

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The initial question therefore confronting the participants in the preliminary meetings of the World Conference was to determine how institutions must act, in the present world environment, to fulfil their missions.

Additionally, they also considered whether new missions should be added to the traditional ones, particularly in view of the fact that, over and above society's problems, higher education institutions are themselves facing radical internal changes related to an explosive equation produced by the growth of their population (students, teachers, administrators), the rise in costs and the reduction of public spending.

As Federico Mayor pointed out in the preface of the Policy Paper for Change and Development in Higher Education (1995), "since its creation, UNESCO has never ceased to encourage the development of higher education and research ". It was a UNESCO publication, the World Survey of Education (Vol. IV- Higher Education) which asserted, in 1966, that the "second half of this century will remain in history as the time of an expansion of higher education surpassing, by far, all which has preceded it".

This is confirmed today by one of the working papers of this conference : Higher Education in the World : Statistics 1980-1995 the figures of which have been quoted by the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, in his address at the opening of the World Conference, and which shows that in the course of the last decades, and on an international scale, the number of students registered in higher education institutions has undergone tremendous growth. "In 1960, world enrolment was only 13 million, in 1970, it was already 28 million, in 1980, the total stood at 51 million. There is every reason to predict that the current trend will continue and the world enrolment total will climb beyond the current, unprecedented total ’’.

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Some countries, particularly those connected with OECD, are clearly stating their intentions to reach universal access to higher education (or tertiary education, as mentioned by OECD). In a more recent document (Redefining Tertiary Education, 1998, p.37) this organization indicates that:

- "Tertiary education is becoming ‘ the place to be, the experience to have ’, prized and valued for all, not just a privileged minority. The direction is universal participation: 100 per cent participation, with fair and equal opportunities to study; in some form of tertiary education; at some stage in the life cycle and not necessarily end-on to secondary education... Access, therefore, is not merely to an institution but to a way of life, not for the few but for all.... "

- In the same publication and on the same page, the OECD mentions "the need for a new paradigm for tertiary education. Its elements include ... the direction of public policy in many countries which project eligibility for tertiary education of 60, 80 or 100 per cent of those completing secondary education; an, in the case of one (the United States) of entry into some kind of tertiary education by everyone... ".

In 1968, French students were demanding on one of their posters at the Sorbonne, "Education in the service of the people" and were saying "no to the class-bound university" (Non Ó l'universitÚ de classe) . To what extent do the goals of universal access proposed by OECD - whose Member States include a large number of "soixante-huitards" within their governments - fulfil the wishes of the students of 1968 ?

UNESCO's Policy Paper for Change and Development in Higher Education, 1995, reveals that the young people of the African region have 17 times less opportunity to pursue higher education than their counterparts in industrialized countries (for the totality of the developing countries, this opportunity is four times less on average.).

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The answer is therefore qualified and must also take into account the reply to a different and equally important question: Is universal access an ideal to be attained only in certain countries, or in certain regions within certain countries?

1. The declarations of the regional conferences held in Latin America and the Caribbean, in Africa, in Asia and the Pacific and in the Arab states mention in their first paragraph the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 26 of which stipulates that "everyone has the right to education" and that ‘’higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit".

2. References, in practically all the regions, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary this year, reveal that a consensus has been reached world-wide. Access must be open and democratic, the only criterion for access must be merit, no discrimination being recognized or accepted. Increased efforts must be exerted particularly to eliminate from higher education all stereotypes linked to gender, and to reinforce everywhere the participation of women, especially with regard to decision-making.

3. The merit principle is reflected in the propositions for the world declaration on higher education as well as in the proposed measures for a framework of priority action on which this conference must reach a decision. This principle applies to all that relates to access, democratization, diversification, organization and financing of the institutions.

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The draft documents represent the outcome of a major exercise. They take into consideration what was adopted during the regional conferences which organized their thinking around four basic themes: Relevance, Quality, Management and Finance, Inter-university Co-operation. The draft documents have also benefited from the results of studies made by about one hundred organizations and from the preliminary documents of the thematic debates of this conference, which were supervised by some fifty governmental and non-governmental organizations associated with UNESCO in the field of higher education.

These debates were structured around extremely diverse themes, which affect all aspects of the missions and lives of institutions within the higher education system :

I. Higher education and development

- The requirements of the world of work
- Higher education and sustainable human development
- Contributing to national and regional development
- Higher education staff development : a continuing mission

II. New directions and innovations in higher education

- Higher education for a new society :a student vision
- From traditional to virtual : the new information technologies
- Higher education and research : challenges and opportunities
- The contribution of higher education to the education system as a whole.

III. Higher education : Culture and Society

- Women and higher education : issues and perspectives
- Promoting a culture of peace
- Mobilizing the power of culture
- Autonomy, social responsibility and academic freedom.

Additionally, the draft declaration and the draft priority action plans were the subject of intensive consultations with Member States and with all the organizations invited to participate in this conference. Points of convergence from their analyses have been retained. We can say that these draft statements - although they could no doubt be improved or expanded - are the result of a collective effort, global in scale. It is therefore to be expected that they will constitute a solid basis for decision by consensus and consequently, that there will be fewer amendments to the texts than has been the case at similar conferences held in the past.

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The draft declaration is broad in its scope, covering a large spectrum of issues and challenges relating to higher education at this close of the century. It starts by defining the missions and functions of higher education highlighting, in addition to its traditional functions, those relating to education and training for citizenship, its ethical role and its forecasting function.

In the second part, the draft declaration presents elements of a new vision of higher education, where key concepts are the following :

- access with equity
- reinforcing the participation of women
- ensuring accessibility to special groups, such as refugees, the handicapped and various minority groups.
- advancement of knowledge through research and dissemination of its findings
- relevance and long term direction, taking into account social needs, particularly in relationship to the world of work
- diversify to increase equality of opportunity
- staff and students : the principal protagonists of higher education.

In the third part, the draft declaration presents elements which facilitate the passage from vision to action, particularly through :

- Internationally comparable standards of quality which should, in no circumstances, result in uniformity, given that quality is a multidimensional concept.
- The potential and stakes of technology, which should be accessible to all and for all.
- The strengthening of higher education management and financing.
- The public service function of higher education, independent of its legal structure.
- The development of co-operation based on solidarity, the establishment of partnerships and alliances; from brain drain to the recovery of talents.

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Moreover, and we noticed it at all the regional conferences, the principles which served as the basis for the official launching by UNESCO in 1991 of the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme were warmly received; and the participants in these conferences proposed that the same principles be considered as the basis for any inter-university co-operation project at the international level.

They were the following :

- stimulate the transfer and sharing of experience.
- strengthen the twinning process between higher education institutions.
- advance knowledge and its applications for the finding of solutions to development problems, curb brain drain, promote equitable sharing of knowledge and competence as a guarantee of sustainable development and the establishment of a culture of peace.

It should be added that the UNITWIN programme was officially approved in 1991, but its development and effective first steps go back to 1989, when the Director General requested from the Division of Higher Education an action plan to strengthen co-operation with and among the universities.

Intensive reflection was conducted, with the assistance of Canadian experts put at the disposal of the Division of Higher Education by the Canadian National Commission for UNESCO. A decision was taken to develop a system of university chairs whose mission from the outset was to be a focal point or part of networks. The Division of Higher Education had relied on the experience of two chairs created in Spain (Barcelona), one in numerical engineering, the other in communications and in networks developed by UNESCO, particularly teacher training networks, and the UNAMAZ (Association of the Amazonian Universities) network created in 1987. It was therefore, a totally new programme, but one which was based on wide-ranging experiences involving various sectors of the Organization.

This programme, notwithstanding some temporary setbacks, has had a remarkable development and is presently sponsoring more than 300 chairs, and supporting over 40 inter-university networks in more than 90 countries. It is based on solidarity, and the programmes are the result of negotiations among all participants.

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Let us return once again to the statement of Octavio Paz for whom "the search of the future ends inevitably with the conquest of the past". Those who admire UNESCO's ability to enlist the support and the mobilization which resulted in the convocation of this World Conference, should also know that the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme is not the product of chance.

It is, in fact, the result of a series of factors, particularly the fact that UNESCO's action in the field of higher education accelerated, in a structured manner, in the years 1980 and 1990, but particularly since the end of the ‘80s with the increased co-operation of governmental and non-governmental organizations.

In 1983, an international seminar in Bulgaria had been preceded by the launching of the collection Papers on Higher Education, whose first issues where devoted to a general view of higher education in the various regions of the world.

From that time, it was clear that quality and relevance went hand in hand, and that co-operation was necessary. No institution could - or can - survive by itself.

From a methodological perspective therefore, it was becoming obvious that the three key words which encompassed all the questions to be addressed by higher education were :

* Quality
* Relevance
* Co-operation

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This conclusion was the result of an exhaustive analysis carried out at that time, in 1988 to be exact, within the Division of Higher Education, of the results of meetings of the consultative councils for higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean, in Europe and in Africa. It was also based on the analysis of a series of meetings of experts organized by UNESCO and other organizations, such as the International Association of Universities, at the international level and by the Association of African Universities and other organizations at the regional level.

In the light of these conclusions, the Director-General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor, proposed joint action with the United Nations University, in July 1988- before the political events of 1989 which changed the face of the world. The proposals were made during a meeting of the Council of the United Nations University which took place in the Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, and suggesting in particular :

"a general examination of the evolution of the nature of the universities since their inception - an examination that could provide guidance as regards a reshaping of the university’s role, especially in developing countries, almost all of which are asking themselves what kind of universities is needed for today’s and tomorrow’s worlds ."

That the Director-General was right became evident soon after, in January 1989, at the International Conference on Education (at the International Bureau of Education in Geneva) which discussed the diversification of post-secondary education. On the first day of the conference, 17 out the 24 speakers made reference to reforms in higher education in their countries : reforms recently made, reforms being executed, reforms being prepared. A proposal was made to UNESCO to elaborate a plan of action for developing countries. This proposal was approved during the last session. This proposal was adopted during the last session of the General Conference of UNESCO held in Paris during October-November 1989 (cf. New Review on Higher Education, Meetings Documentation, N░ 1, p. 51). This gave rise to the official launching of UNITWIN.

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Again in Geneva, in January 1989, I had the opportunity, as the representative of the Director-General to Commission I - "New trends in matters of post-secondary education", of presenting, in an international context, the interdisciplinary action plan for the development of co-operation in order to promote the improvement of quality and relevance in post-secondary education.

I also had the privilege in announcing - on behalf of the Director General - the Secretariat's intention to initiate an in-depth discussion on the situation of higher education in the world. It was at that time, and as a follow-up to the recommendation of the Director General at the UNU Council in Brasilia, that the decision was made to organize, in co-operation with the United Nations University and the NGOs specializing in the field of higher education, "a series of studies, of round tables and meetings of experts, during the biennial exercise 1990-1991, and an international conference where an action plan would be submitted to strengthen co-operation in the field of higher education".

This was the beginning of the action which resulted in the preparation of the Policy Paper on Higher Education . It is in this document that one finds the basis for the convocation of a World Conference. The idea had not yet matured at that time (1989), some Member States opposed it. It was a utopia which only today becomes a reality.

Following these decisions, studies were undertaken on the evolution of the concept of the university by the University of the United Nations, under the supervision of Edward Ploman and Torsten HusÚn. A series of studies and of regional meetings were organized by UNESCO in Caracas (Venezuela), Armidale (Australia ), Dakar (Senegal), and later, in Sinaia (Romania). A meeting for the Arab States was cancelled due to the Gulf War.

The outcome of these deliberations was the publication in 1993, by UNESCO and IDRC (International Development Research Center) of Canada, of the book The University as an Institution Today by Alfonso Borrero Cabal (an author's book revised by an international group of experts). This was followed by the Policy Paper for Change and Development in Higher Education, published in 1995 in eight languages.

Of course, UNESCO did not and does not have a monopoly on ideas. Many governmental and non-governmental organizations from around the world were simultaneously engaged on the issue of higher education, as evidenced, for example, by publications from the World Bank, the International Association of Universities, and from various regional associations, teachers’ associations, national conferences of rectors, presidents of universities, etc...

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All these debates, and in particular the discussions surrounding UNESCO's Policy Paper- which took place around the world, including in various parliaments- revived the idea of organizing a world conference, proposed in 1989 but which had been temporary shelved.

In response to these calls, the Director-General decided, in 1996, to organize the conference

"to lay down fundamental principles for the in-depth reform of the higher education systems throughout the world with a view to strengthening their contribution to the building of peace, founded on a process of development that is predicated on equity, justice, solidarity and liberty - a process which requires that higher education institutions enjoy autonomy and freedom exercised with responsibility".

Once more, UNESCO decided to go back to the drawing board and initiate a large-scale mobilization to centre around five regional conferences, themselves to be preceded by subregional conferences, national meetings, in-depth studies, joint analyses with NGOs, etc... The conferences took place in Havana, November 1996, (Latin America and the Caribbean); in Dakar , April 1997 (Africa); Tokyo, July 1997 (Asia and Pacific); Palermo, September 1997, (Europe Region) and Beirut, March 1998 (Arab States).

These conferences were concluded by expert meetings, such as the one for North America, in Toronto, Canada, May 1997; one in Strasbourg, organized jointly by the French National Commission for UNESCO and the Council of Europe, July 1998; the Collective Consultation of NGOs specialized or interested in the field of higher education, in Paris, May 1998; the Conference of the International Association of Universities in Bangkok, November 1997 , the Meeting of Education International in Paris, March 1997, etc....

Later, you will have the opportunity to view the results of the regional conferences which will be presented by Carlos Tunnerman (Latin America and the Caribbean), Lydia Makhubu (Africa), Gottfried Leibbrandt (Europe Region); Charas Suwanwela (Asia and Pacific) and Ibrahim Abu Lughod (Arab States). They are members of the Steering Committee of the Consultative Committee for Higher Education, which was designated by the Director-General, to supervise the World Conference preparations.

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In discussing the structure of the World Conference on Higher Education, the main ideas which emerged from the regional conferences have already been mentioned. I would at this point emphasize those points which I believe are essential to remember:

a) The educational system must be treated as a whole and higher education, regardless of its legal structure, must be viewed as part of the public sector. The allocation of public support to higher education remains vital , diversification notwithstanding.

b) Merit, ability and motivation of students must constitute the only basis for access to higher education, no discrimination being allowed to restrict this access. Participation of women in all disciplines where they are under-represented, as well as in administration, must be an objective to attain.

c) The development of new technologies opens the door to continuing education for all; these technologies must be used in the service of teaching and research and should also contribute to a more efficient management of higher education systems. They must be accessible to all and of service to all, taking into account differing social and cultural conditions (as should be the case in all aspects of the organization of higher education institutions). Finally, new technologies should ensure lifelong access to education for all.

d) Today, higher education must train citizens who are able to think clearly, analyse problems, make choices, act ethically and assume their responsibilities. Strengthened ties with the world of work should not obscure the fundamental directions of higher education institutions which should be long-term and related to social needs. The market is a reality, but the current crisis may be explained, in large part, by the absence of rules and the lack of a comprehensive vision in which social and cultural factors should be priorities. The final goal of action in this field must remain the establishment of a more equitable society.

e) None of this can be accomplished unless teachers and students play an important role in the life of organizations, and unless these organizations are able to enjoy institutional autonomy and academic freedom, with accountability to society.

f) The international dimension of higher education is part of its quality, and the development of networks based on sharing, solidarity and equality among partners must be encouraged and must become a tool for major action on the part of institutions and systems.

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In order for these principles not to remain in the abstract, you are also called upon to examine the propositions for a framework of priority action to improve relevance, quality, management and finance and inter-university co-operation. Measures are planned at national level, at the level of systems and institutions and - particularly under UNESCO's aegis - at international level. This process must not stop when the conference ends.

Joint action by all the stakeholders in higher education is necessary .

A process of permanent reflection should take place based on new foundations and, consequently, the establishment of a UNESCO/UNU forum has been suggested, in which all interested organizations will be invited to participate. A basis exists already : the UNESCO chairs network in higher education.

The strengthening of the intersectoral and multidisciplinary approach of UNESCO's programme on higher education would appear to be necessary, as is the reinforcement of co-operation based upon the principle of solidarity.

This implies :

- the transfer of knowledge and technology
- assistance which must not be confused with aid the existence of equal partners

In 1968, neither the governments, the media, nor the institutions of higher education saw or felt the coming crisis. I was myself a student in Paris in 1968, and I remember as if it were yesterday the wildly unrealistic comments, which were made by personalities from all sides at the beginning of the movement. UNESCO itself did not attempt to listen to the students until after 1968. We certainly do not claim to be announcing that a new May 68 is imminent, we are not here to indulge in futurology; nevertheless, UNESCO has fulfilled its duty. The Delors Report opened the way for a comprehensive reflection on education. The World Conference on Higher Education has mobilised a high level of participation, and initiated a considerable process of reflection. Now it is to be hoped that the conference will stimulate action which will encourage improvement in the quality of higher education.

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Discussions on the follow-up to the conference should take place once all its results are known.

To sum up, all those who decided to become involved in this process, all those who participated in the deliberations of the regional conferences prior to the World Conference, as well as all those present here today are seeking to create a conceptual framework for the higher education of the future which will entail :

- the participation of all social partners in higher education, members of governments and all representatives of civil society, students and their families, teachers, researchers and workers.

- the definition of common social objectives aiming at the establishment of in-depth reforms which will improve the relevance of higher education and its links with society, and enable the creation of quality education, with access for all on the basis of merit and ability, and without any kind of discrimination.

- the strengthening of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, within the framework of accountability.

- finally, the participation of all in the establishment of a more just and equitable society.

Is it a utopia ? Is it impossible ?

It probably is a utopia. But let us not forget that to organize a conference of this size was also seen as a utopia and yet, here we are all together (representatives of governments, of the academic world, teachers, researchers, students, administrators, parliamentarians, IGOs and NGOs, representatives of the world of work) to discuss these questions. Let us not forget that without utopia, without ideals, one cannot accelerate progress or build a better society. What UNESCO suggests to you is a realistic utopia.