Higher education has a key role to play in countering the spread of populism and nationalism and tackling global challenges such as poverty and climate change, by reasserting universal values of human dignity and the value of science and research, UNESCO’s education chief, Stefania Giannini, said last week.
Competition between universities and between countries will be increasingly about human capital, she warned. Countries that are able to attract talented and very qualified people and give them opportunities to improve their competences will be the most competitive.
But the same countries will also build more inclusive societies “because a strong higher education system, at the national level, can help to lessen social tensions, help people to be tolerant and to know different cultures, religions and languages better”.
UNESCO, as the UN and leading international organisation dedicated to education, science and culture, may be battling in a difficult context of rising opposition to multilateralism and globalisation, but its mission, to build peace ‘in the minds of men’, still has much to offer the world, she told journalists in London, especially in the current context.
She said that globalisation, although it had enabled people to live, learn and work in different countries, had become a negative word for many common people facing challenges as a result of it.
“Maybe now it is time to get back to a universal perspective [based on] human dignity, respect, tolerance, exchange of knowledge of cultures and religions. This is a dimension where education and specifically higher education can play a crucial role.”
She was talking on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in advance of a wide-ranging speech in which she argued that higher education is a “fundamental human right” and, more than ever, education is the “main infrastructure to build sustainable development and sustainable societies” and should contribute to “society as a whole”.
“Higher education has a frontline role to play in understanding and finding solutions to challenges affecting all countries, including in their ethical dimensions.
“Higher education institutions are vital for advancing inclusive national and regional development, for shaping more resilient and inclusive societies. They are intricately linked to shaping the economic, social and environmental fabric of our world.”
Giannini, who was Italy’s second female rector – leading the University for Foreigners of Perugia, oriented towards study, by foreigners, of the Italian language and culture – and was Italy’s education minister between 2014 and 2016, was speaking in London at an event marking the 21st anniversary of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.
She said the world is witnessing an ongoing revolution in higher education that UNESCO, as the only United Nations agency with a mandate in this field, has a responsibility to guide, with all its partners, towards inclusion, relevance and excellence for all students.
Quality assurance is key to survival
“It is a revolution mirroring accelerating globalisation, demographic shifts and quantum leaps in technology that are profoundly transforming how we live, work and learn, even blurring the boundaries of what it means to be human.
“I would argue that quality assurance is co-substantial with the very survival of a university, and of our responsibility towards generations of learners.”
She said that, although there was a tradition of excellence in some of the oldest universities, every university’s challenge today is to provide high-quality programmes that meet students’ expectations, inspire them to be creative, open-minded and innovative, to be critical thinkers with the ambition and knowledge to take up the complex and interdependent challenges of our times.
“We need to build inclusive, accessible and open systems of excellence, and ones that are accountable.”
She pointed to two important developments that are changing or challenging the role of universities.
First, for the first time a universal agenda, adopted by all member states of the United Nations in 2015, recognises the role of higher education to address critical 21st century issues and challenges.
The 2030 Agenda – comprised of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – provides a broad frame for developing higher learning curricula and research geared towards fighting poverty, inequalities and hunger, improving health, achieving universal education, protecting our planet, and shaping more sustainable cities, communities and societies.
Call for multidisciplinary approach
“These challenges are interconnected and call for a multidisciplinary approach – universities have a heritage of unified knowledge that we need to develop even further.
“None will be realised without quality education – at all levels.”
One target of the education goal – SDG4 – specifically refers to providing "equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university".
Achieving this target presents steep challenges in the face of the second development, which is the landscape of change that is evolving at an ever-increasing and unpredictable rate, she said.
That change includes three trends. First, a demand for higher education that is rising in almost every part of the world and is driven by demographic trends. An estimated 221 million students are enrolled in higher education worldwide today – a figure that stood at 143 million in 2006 and only 68 million in 1991.
This is an exponential growth – enrolment in Latin America and the Caribbean rose from 22% in 2000 to 50% today, in Europe and Northern America from 55% to 76%, in East and Southeast Asia from 15% to 46%, and in Africa, while still well below the global 37% average, from 4% to 8%, she said.
A second trend is the rise in mobility of research, students and university staff. In 2017 as many as 4.6 million students went abroad to study – equal to one in every 40 students globally. This number is predicted to double to more than eight million by 2025.
“Europe remains the top destination for tertiary level students enrolled outside their country of origin, hosting around 50% of the total, followed by North America, with 20%.”
Explosion in provider numbers
The third important trend is diversification of the global academic community, and an explosion in the numbers and types of higher education providers, modalities of provision and of programmes and certificates, now including ‘baby Bachelor’ degrees and ‘Micro-Masters’.
Technology has spawned choice but also corruption in the form of essay and degree mills that undermine the reputation of the sector, Giannini said.
These challenges require global dialogue and cooperation and UNESCO sees its core mission to be a commitment to the development of higher education policies and practices worldwide by setting norms and providing platforms for dialogue and sharing of expertise.
These platforms include UNESCO's five Regional Conventions on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, for the Africa region, the Arab States, the Asia Pacific, Europe and North America, and for Latin America and the Caribbean.
They aim to promote “cooperation rather than competition”, inclusion, transparency and trust – these are key factors to build a global quality assurance framework, she said.
Most ambitious project
UNESCO’s most ambitious project in its work over the past few years is crafting a Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, with the aim of its adoption at UNESCO’s 40th General Conference – the organisation’s highest governing body – in November 2019.
“This will be a new milestone in higher education, and an opportunity to give a ‘passport of knowledge’ to our students,” Giannini said.
“Together these binding formal agreements represent a significant step in fostering global trust. They stand to improve not only academic and professional mobility but also will enhance international cooperation in higher education.”
Giannini said that together with inclusion, quality assurance is the key to solid higher education systems worldwide. But many developing countries have no national quality assurance agencies, jeopardising their higher education systems that are under pressure to expand.
“Take the case of Africa: in 2050, an estimated 2.4 billion people will live in Africa, up from one billion today, with direct consequences for student enrolment in higher education, expected to increase by 50% of college-aged students by 2063.
“This will oblige existing universities to enhance their programmes, new institutions to open and new delivery modes to spread so that higher education becomes accessible to more students. The extent to which institutions gear their programmes to the sustainable development of the region will be critical for ensuring that graduates are prepared to take on its future.”
UNESCO is working with 10 African countries to help establish these mechanisms.
It is also working with the OECD to update guidelines for quality provision in cross-border delivery of higher education.
‘High quality systems are inclusive’
In her speech, Giannini said high-quality systems are inclusive systems. As demand for tertiary education expands, more policies must be designed to eliminate the multiple barriers faced by certain groups and facilitate their participation.
These policies must pay particular attention to those students that, having good scholar trajectories, suffer structural discriminations that leave them out of the tertiary education level.
She stressed that more must be done to encourage the participation of women in scientific disciplines.
And she stressed that the inclusion of refugees, migrants and displaced persons in higher education is “particularly urgent in the current climate, not only in Europe but in other regions of the world. This is a matter of human rights, of human dignity, of respect and tolerance”.
UNESCO last month launched its Global Education Monitoring Report, which this year focuses on refugees, displacement and migration.
The report warns of the need for agreements within countries that recognise qualifications that migrants bring with them, to avoid wasting their potential.
Currently, less than one quarter of immigrants globally are covered by an international recognition agreement.
The report reveals the extent to which this wastes potential: only 30% of those with tertiary degrees gained outside Europe and Northern America work in high-skill occupations. Fewer than 15% reported that their level of education matched their jobs, compared with nearly 75% of natives.
Last year, the adoption of a Lisbon Convention Recommendation on the Recognition of Refugee Qualifications made a clear call for higher education systems to put in place procedures that recognise individual talents, experience and prior learning – both formal and informal – for access to further study at higher levels, even in the absence of official documents.
“This is not only a technical matter of validating diplomas, but a call to change how societies view migrants and refugees, and value their talents as a contribution to society,” she said.
Competition and cooperation
Speaking to University World News, Giannini said the key words in the higher education framework now are “competition and cooperation”.
She said because there is increasing competition internationally, universities are required to demonstrate that their level of research is higher than other institutions’, so that they are more and more able to attract the best professors, researchers and students.
But at the same time “it is only because of cooperation between the main actors of the knowledge chain that we can build a real inclusive society and find the right answers to the big challenges we are facing now”, such as climate change.
She said one of the legacies Europe will leave in infrastructure – as shown by the Horizon 2020 European Union research programme, for instance – is the demonstration that universities can build knowledge hubs where you can find a concentration and aggregation of difference competences and focus together on very specific issues.
She said it is a huge responsibility to address global challenges but acknowledged that there is a problem stemming from the imbalance between North and South, given that where there is competition the stronger universities will continue to attract the top talent, and given that, within developing countries, without scholarships it is only the elite who can afford to study in those top institutions abroad.
“This is why we need to work in a very ambitious and universal dimension and I think we have the tools. This is why UNESCO is the right place to do something like this.”