EXPORTING HIGHER EDUCATION: A QUESTION OF QUALITYParis - Is higher education a commercial service that can be traded like any other? Is a diploma from one of the rapidly growing number of transborder or virtual universities worth a diploma from a more traditional, state-funded institution? What guarantees exist to ensure the quality of private higher education services? Are they adequate given the radical changes taking place in this domain? And will the rise in the private sector and the export of higher education affect the already declining funding provided by state budgets to higher eduation sectors?
These questions will be at the heart of a conference on Globalization and Higher Education: the First Global Forum on International Quality Assurance, Accreditation and the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education, which will take place at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris from October 17-18 (Room IX).
The stakes are considerable and debates passionate. In 1995, the World Trade Organization, through its General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), recognized education as a tradeable commodity. Along with the rise of new communications technologies and the exponentially growing demand for higher education, this means that the sector has become big business.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the higher education market in its member countries is conservatively worth some $30 billion annually. In 1999 there were 1.47 million foreign students studying in tertiary education in the OECD countries, an increase of more than 100,000 over 1998. In the United States, education accounts for 3.2 percent of the total exports of services, while in Australia it has become the eighth largest export industry.
In developing countries, the private sector is often seen as a vital reinforcement to the efforts of the State. In China, for example, 36 percent of higher education students are enrolled in private institutions. According to a series of case studies prepared by UNESCO for the Global Forum, new providers account for 55 percent of all "new" and "very new" universities in Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen, while in Kazakhstan 70 percent of all universities are private.
Not all new providers seek to make a profit. The African Virtual University was initially established as a World Bank project and is now an independent non-profit organization, serving 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Since its inception in 1997, more than 24,000 students have completed courses in technology, engineering, business and sciences and more than 3,500 professionals have attended executive and management seminars.
However, major traditional stakeholders in higher education, institutions, teachers' unions, students associations and many scholars fiercely oppose higher education being treated as a commodity. Others, sometimes from the same groups, advocate that trade is happening already and that it has certain benefits and opportunities, on condition that it is handled and monitored correctly.
More than 90 experts from all continents, representing some of the world's most prestigious universities and learning institutions - public, private and offshore - students associations, teachers' unions, non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations and private industry will participate in the Global Forum, which will address these issues and look for ways to reconcile the various interests. They'll be asked to consider updating of existing conventions on the recognition of studies, certificates, diplomas, degrees and other academic qualifications*; the creation of an international framework for quality assurance; the development of information tools to help students select the type of higher education best suited to their needs; and the preparation of a code of good practice for higher education providers.
Apart from the plenary sessions, the Forum will also include four specialized workshops looking at:
· Global Markets and Share Responsibilities in Higher Education: Trade in Educational Services, moderated by Jane Knight (Canada) from the Comparative International and Development Education Center, Ontario Institute of Studies in Education
· Impact of Globalization on Quality Assurance and Accreditation and the Recognition of Qualifications, moderated by Andrejs Rauhvargers (Latvia), President of the Lisbon Recognition Convention
· Diversity of Learning and Learners, moderated by Bernard Loing (France) of the International Council for Open and Distance Education
· Public vs. Private Higher Education: Public Good, Equity, Access, moderated by Suzy Halimi (France) of the French National Commission for UNESCO.
*UNESCO began working on conventions on the mutual, transborder recognition of degrees in higher education in 1960s. Six normative instruments to regulate mutual recognition of higher education studies and degrees were adopted during the 1970s and the early 1980s. The youngest convention, the 1997 Lisbon Recognition Convention for the Europe Region, is a joint document of the Council of Europe and UNESCO and will gradually replace other existing European conventions which date back to the 1950s.
The texts of the conventions are available online.
Journalists wishing to attend are asked to contact:
Sue Williams, Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section
Tel: (+33) (0)1 45 68 17 06