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Global challenges – global solutions: 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education

The 2009 World Conference on Higher Education (WCHE): The New Dynamics of Higher Education and Research for Societal Change and Development was held between 5 and 8 July at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Over 1000 representatives from 150 countries got together to take stock of changes and developments since the 1998 WCHE. Three plenary sessions, three panels and over twenty parallel sessions were held to discuss the current state of affairs of higher education (HE) around the globe, and to outline future challenges and goals for higher education providers and policy makers. Regional preparatory conferences were organised prior to the 2009 WCHE, in order to identify region-specific concerns to be brought into the discussions.

A cross-cutting theme, and the first point of the 2009 communiqué, adopted unanimously by the 150 governments attending, is the importance of recognising higher education as a “public good”. In this sense, the central role of HE in the battle against poverty and towards sustainable social development, accompanied by the need for intensified cooperation and dialogue across institutions, countries and regions (identified already in 1998) remain high on the global agenda. Moreover, the ambition to involve all stakeholders in strengthening the higher education sector is expressed through an appeal to diversify the sources for higher education, research and innovation funding (without compromising academic freedom) as well as through two concrete calls for action – one addressed to member states and the other to UNESCO. The primary responsibility for investing sufficient resources in HE (in order to ensure equitable access and international quality standards, especially in light of the current financial crisis) is placed in the hands of governments. 

The final communiqué comprises a number of sections, each outlining a set of relevant themes of the present and action lines for the future of higher education. The major themes include:

  • developing adequate regulatory and quality assurance mechanisms;
  • educating well-qualified and committed teaching and research staff, to meet the needs of diverse learners;
  • improving access to, but also successful participation and completion of higher education (with focus on globally marginalised groups);
  • intensifying support to developing countries to build up higher education systems of good quality;
  • further stimulating international cooperation, in the form of networks and partnerships (at all levels) to promote excellence, but also to reduce the impact of phenomena like brain drain, ‘degree mills’ (i.e. low-quality providers) and the continued discrepancies between higher education in developed and developing countries; and
  • last but not least, special regional attention is devoted to Africa, in terms of increasing enrollment, and improving the quality of African HE and research, etc.  

Unquestionably, the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education is of great symbolic importance – one that matches the 1998 WCHE as a historical milestone in setting the future priorities for higher education globally. Without a doubt, many of the challenges highlighted remain and new ones lie ahead. Addressing them requires following certain common international standards, like Education for All (EFA), Open and Distance Learning (ODL) and equal access to ICTs, to name but a few. The real challenge, however, is turning words into actions and striking the right balance between international HE models, regional cooperation and local needs.

2009 WCHE communiqué