Higher education: How do we unleash the talent of the next generation?

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Higher education is evolving at a very rapid pace around the world. The number of students in universities and higher education institutions has more than doubled globally in the last two decades to 235 million. And it’s expected to double again in the next decade, along with international student mobility. Are universities ready?

With our planet’s growing sustainability challenges, large scale digitization and increasing inequalities, it’s clear that new knowledge and skills are needed today. That is why higher education must be transformed in order unleash the talent of the next generation, boost lifelong learning opportunities, and find lasting solutions for the well-being of humanity and the planet.

It’s time to chart a renewed vision for higher education that is more inclusive, accessible, connected and responsive to society’s complex and alarming global challenges.

That’s the aim of the upcoming World Conference that is gathering in Barcelona, Spain from 18 to 20 May 2022. 

Here’s what you need to know.

How can we democratize access to higher education?

Higher education is inherently part of the right to education, and everyone should be able to access it.  

Despite sharp increases in enrolment - in South and West Asia and East Asia & Pacific, the number of students grew by more than 200% in two decades - large disparities still remain. Enrolment stands at 9% in sub-Saharan Africa, the only region where fewer women than men are enrolled (70 women for 100 men); 25% in Central and Southern Asia, and between 40% and 50% in Eastern and Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Only about 5 % of refugees have access to higher education.

To ensure equal distribution of opportunities, countries and institutions must accelerate efforts to remove the financial and non-monetary barriers to quality higher education for all learners, giving priority to vulnerable groups. There is a strong need to introduce explicit mechanisms and targeted schemes to address the marginalization of underprivileged populations.

How can we support student mobility?

The number of students pursuing higher education outside their home country almost tripled during the last two decades to 6 million. This figure is expected to grow to 8 million by 2025.

That’s why UNESCO is calling for countries to ratify the 2019 Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education, the first United Nations treaty in this field. To date 14 Member States have ratified the Global Convention, which needs 20 ratifications to enter into force. Together with the development of a second generation” of regional recognition conventions, this provides a solid infrastructure for strengthening student mobility and inter-university cooperation

Distance learning and other forms of cross-border higher education are contributing to a rise in virtual academic mobility, with all the challenges that new forms of provision present for regulators and quality assurance.

How can we make knowledge more open and accessible?

Knowledge is not a commodity. It is a common resource that should be accessible to everyone.

To this end, the World Conference will call for more open, connected and interdisciplinary approaches to teaching, learning and research because it’s essential for creating solutions to solve our interwoven global challenges.

Democratizing knowledge is a condition for reimagining a more inclusive and sustainable future together. Competition should not come at the expense of collaboration among academic institutions. UNESCO believes that universities and other types of higher education institutions can perform their educational missions more effectively through cooperation and solidarity.

UNESCO’s Recommendation on Open Science adopted in November 2021 promotes open access to scientific publications, the sharing of scientific data and much wider collaboration on research. It is a potential game changer for widening the research base, strengthening research capacity in the South and giving greater value to knowledge systems that have been traditionally excluded.

How can we gear programmes around sustainability?

Sustainability should become a core practice of higher education institutions and be reflected in study programmes, research and outreach.

From climate change to ocean health to food security, our global challenges are interconnected. That’s why we need more inter- and transdisciplinary approaches.

It is essential that we push the limits of academia to bring together the knowledge and ideas of not only one group, or subject, or discipline, but many. Higher education institutions must go an extra mile to recognize and embrace the diversity of knowledge systems and ways of knowing in their curricula, research and pedagogies. Indigenous and pluralistic ways of knowing can offer pathways for designing sustainable solutions, from agricultural practices to managing biodiversity. 

Higher education has an ethical responsibility to put technology at the service of human and ecological well-being. UNESCO is providing a common ground for this. Last November, the General Conference also adopted a ground-breaking Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, the first normative instrument of its kind, anchored in universal principles of human rights.

How can we develop new financing models?

Broadening access to education has massive cost implications for governments especially in developing countries.

In many countries, the prevailing trend has been an increase in tuition fees and other indirect costs. This poses a substantial financial burden on students, affecting both access and completion particularly for students from low-income backgrounds.

Increased cost-sharing and the rapidly rising proportion of private higher education providers - enrolling more than half the students in several African, Asian, and Latin American nations - have been associated with growing inequality in access and success at the post-secondary level.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the need for substantial changes in the economic models of higher education systems and institutions to increase their resilience. Systems with higher proportions of public funding have shown that they were less vulnerable to health and economic crises. The pandemic has also stressed that strong IT infrastructure and comprehensive financial aid programmes are indispensable to foster inclusion.

As UNESCO’s Futures of Education report emphasized, higher education can and must help forge a new social contract for education.

The Conference will call for investing in education and research as an essential condition for inclusive development, peace and social justice. A Roadmap, informed by multiple and wide consultations, will be presented at the gathering to express the urgent call for renewed thinking, dialogue, and transformative action, recognizing that higher education is a right to be exerted throughout life.