What you need to know about higher education

Last update: June 9, 2022

UNESCO, as the only United Nations agency with a mandate in higher education, works with countries to ensure all students have equal opportunities to access and complete good quality higher education with internationally recognized qualifications. It places special focus on developing countries, notably Africa. 

Why does higher education matter?  

Higher education is a rich cultural and scientific asset which enables personal development and promotes economic, technological and social change. It promotes the exchange of knowledge, research and innovation and equips students with the skills needed to meet ever changing labour markets. For students in vulnerable circumstances, it is a passport to economic security and a stable future. 

What is the current situation? 

Higher education has changed dramatically over the past decades with increasing enrolment, student mobility, diversity of provision, research dynamics and technology. Some 235 million students are enrolled in universities around the world – a number that has more than doubled in the last 20 years and is set to expand. Yet despite the boom in demand, the overall enrolment ratio is 40% with large differences between countries and regions. More than 6 million students are pursuing their further education abroad. And among the world’s more than 82 million refugees, only 5% of eligible youth are enrolled in higher education, whereas comparative figures for primary and secondary education are 68% and 34%, respectively (UNHCR). The COVID-19 pandemic further disrupted the way higher education was provided.

What does UNESCO do to ensure access for everyone to higher education? 

UNESCO's work is aligned with Target 4.3 of SDG 4 which aims, by 2030, “to ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university”. To achieve this, UNESCO supports countries by providing knowledge, evidence-based information and technical assistance in the development of higher education systems and policies based on the equal distribution of opportunities for all students. 

UNESCO supports countries to enhance recognition, mobility and inter-university cooperation through the ratification and implementation of the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education and regional recognition conventions. To tackle the low rate of refugee youth in higher education UNESCO has developed the UNESCO Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants, a tool which makes it easier for those groups with qualifications to move between countries. The passport brings together information on educational and other qualifications, language, work history. UNESCO places a special focus on Africa with projects such as the Higher Technical Education in Africa for a technical and innovative workforce supported by China Funds-in-Trust.  

​​​​​​​How does UNESCO ensure the quality of higher education? 

The explosion in demand for higher education and increasing internationalization means UNESCO is expanding its work on quality assurance, helping Member States countries to establish their own agencies and mechanisms to enhance quality and develop policies particularly in developing countries and based on the Conventions. Such bodies are absent in many countries, making learners more vulnerable to exploitative providers.  

It also facilitates the sharing of good practices and innovative approaches to widen inclusion in higher education. As part of this work, it collaborates with the International Association of Universities to produce the World Higher Education Database which provides information on higher education systems, credentials and institutions worldwide. 

​​​​​​​How does UNESCO keep pace with digital change?  

The expansion of connectivity worldwide has boosted the growth of online and blended learning, and revealed the importance of digital services, such as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Higher Education Management Information Systems in helping higher education institutions utilize data for better planning, financing and quality. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this transformation and increased the number of providers and the range of degree offerings from cross-border to offshore education.  The Organization provides technical support and policy advice on innovative approaches to widening access and inclusion including through the use of ICTs and by developing new types of learning opportunities both on-campus and online. 

How does UNESCO address the needs of a changing job market?

Labour markets are experiencing rapid changes, with increased digitization and greening of economies, but also the rising internationalization of higher education. UNESCO places a strong emphasis on developing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, indispensable to sustainable development and innovation. It aims to strengthen skills development for youth and adults, particularly literacy, TVET, STEM and higher education to meet individual, labour market and societal demands.