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Papers presented at the Symposium on
5 December 1996, Santiago, Chile

(held in conjunction with the 43rd Session of the Council of the United Nations University)


Marco Antonio R. Dias
Director, Division of Higher Education, UNESCO, Paris

I. Introduction

In July 1988, a special meeting of the Council of the United Nations University was held at the Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, in Latin America. At that meeting, the Director-General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor, stated that the time had come for a thorough review of the functions and missions of higher education institutions vis-a-vis society. As a starting point, we should take the original idea which presided over the establishment of such institutions. Their evolution in time and space should be examined in order to comprehend their present role within the framework of a society undergoing accelerated change.

A great movement was thus generated. Expert meetings were held on every continent. For example, a member of the UNU Council, Professor Ingrid Moses, who is present here today, took part in a meeting of Asian and Pacific area experts held in Armidale, Australia, in 1990. The Colombian author, Alfonso Borrero Cabal, published a non-mechanical review of such reflective efforts, titled "University as Institution Today" ("L'Universite aujourd-hui" in French).

The United Nations University took part in this endeavour and published a paper in 1994. It was entitled "The Role of Universities: A Global Perspective," and was initiated by Edward Ploman and completed by Torsten Husen.

Then, as a result of this movement but also in response to a UNESCO General Conference resolution (in its 27th session in 1993) inviting the Director-General to prepare a "general policy of the organisation covering the entire scope of higher education," the "Policy Paper for Change and Development in Education" was issued in 1995. This paper designed the principles on which the process of higher education change and development could be based.

II. A New World Order

It is interesting to note that during this exercise in reflection, UNESCO received a similar response from every quarter: before asking what type of universities we want, we have to determine what kind of society we wish to establish.

This is not an accidental observation. The whole exercise coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the hasty announcement made by some that a new world order was in the process of being established. Was it truly a new order or was it simply a case of using the opportunity afforded by a general perplexity in order to strengthen an old order?

All the participants in this exercise have observed that international trends in the late eighties and early nineties were characterised by a series of concomitant and sometimes contradictory changes: democratisation, globalization, regionalisation, polarisation, exclusion and fragmentation.

While these converging and contradictory changes create a dynamics, they also set forth problems and, while the issue of where we are going is actually left pending, we are forced to wonder what kind of society humankind wishes to establish as we reach the end of the century.

This explains why, since 1992, the Member States of the United Nations have attempted to define the foundations of a new world order. The starting point was the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. After the Summit, several major conferences were held on the environment, population, women's participation in the development process, housing, social development, etc., whose results were, to a certain extent, strengthened in two papers approved by the United Nations General Assembly: A Programme for Peace and A Programme for Development. By themselves they could justify the prominent position that Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali will certainly hold in the history of the United Nations, and they may provide some explanation as to the difficulties he is encountering in having his mandate renewed. These two papers contain a set of foundation rules for a new order that does not constitute an instrument for domination. The Programme for Development provides actions for the elimination-or at least the reduction-of poverty, the maintenance of peace, environmental protection, and human resources training in which the role of higher education is obviously vital.

Therefore, the search for a more equitable model of society must be the priority guiding both higher education and other education systems. The University must be at the service of society and, as things stand in the world at present, it must contribute to the promotion of the development of a more friendly and communal society.

III. Quality Linked to Society's Needs

These aims require the reform of higher education; it must modernise under the guide of three criteria determining its hierarchy and local, national, and international operation: relevance, quality, and internationalisation.

For UNESCO, quality is a multi-dimensional concept which depends largely on the environment of a certain institutional system or purpose, or on the conditions and rules of a certain discipline. Let it be stated quite clearly then, that we cannot talk about quality which is not linked to relevance. Both are interrelated concepts.

When I talk about this issue, I usually quote an experience which involved UNESCO, and which deserves to be examined. On 26 April 1995, the United States newspaper The Herald Tribune published a report on the first group of graduates from the campus of an American university located in Central Europe. This university was transplanted with its English programmes, with the same curriculum used in the United States, with teachers coming from that country. The first step taken by the university authorities was to set up a baseball field in a country where, like in Latin America, the favourite sport among young people is football.

The transfer was thus total and absolute. Students, selected from a rigorously screened pool, were high achievers and their school results were higher than the average for American students who were enrolled in the same programme. Now then, according to The Herald Tribune, once the course was over, most graduates would move to the United States either to finish their studies or to enter the local job market. Is this the aim pursued by renewal or modernisation?

Furthermore, in order to produce more funds, the universities of a great European country have decided to raise enrollment fees and foreign students' tuition fees (there are many foreign students in this country). They also established a "franchising" system similar to that adopted by "fast-food" restaurants, transferring whole programmes to other countries, particularly in Southeast Asia and Africa, without taking into consideration the needs and characteristics of receiving countries. These are programmes in English, based on English logics, taught in several countries at a rather high price. One can ask, then, is it valid to transfer programmes in this manner, when they are true black boxes?

Any reform process must take into consideration the social, political, and cultural reality of a country. It is necessary to think of establishments here and now.

IV. Responsible Autonomy

Clearly, this does not mean that the past must not be taken into account. Octavio Paz would say-and I have the quote in English here-"the search for a future ends inevitably with a reconquest of the past."

In general terms, the Cordoba reform of 1918-the university reform-has had great influence on the university of today. With this reform, Latin-Americans made a great contribution to global university thinking by establishing a system in which universities must be linked to society and to the cultures in which they are situated, in order to conserve, disseminate, and generate knowledge. This is a major component and, in an environment of complete freedom, this ideal of linking the training of human resources to the development of the community in which the university is immersed must be upheld.

Responsible autonomy is of fundamental importance to this purpose, and paragraph 137 of the UNESCO policy paper states:

One of the founding principles of UNESCO relations with all its partners in higher education is the respect for academic freedom and institutional autonomy. This criterion is derived from experience, and from the conviction that adhering to these two principles is a condition for the normal operation of higher education institutions and for the success of reform. In reply to a call from the academic community, UNESCO will continue to support the development of internationally recognised principles and practices regarding academic freedom and the autonomy of higher education institutions, as well as the improvement of higher education teachers' status, in accordance with the standards adopted throughout the world.

By the way, I must tell you that since 1966, UNESCO and the ILO have been charged with the follow-up of a regulatory instrument, i.e., a recommendation approved by the Member States, on the status of teaching personnel. This regulatory instrument applies to teaching personnel of almost every level and deals with issues relating to basic and further training and to teachers' working conditions. The Member States have accepted these commitments with respect to the profession. However, this instrument does not apply to higher education teachers and, therefore, UNESCO has prepared a draft that will be submitted to the General Conference in 1997.

V. Universal Trends

It is therefore necessary to preserve what is positive in our generation and other generations that preceded us, and what they have achieved. But changes are required. Reality changes very fast. Communications are instantaneous. Government, Parliament, the media, the people, everyone knows what is happening in neighbouring and distant countries. Distance is no longer an obstacle to communications. Universities can no longer operate as they did thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, without consideration for changes in their social environment.

The international reflection exercise carried out by UNESCO showed that some trends, although in differing degrees, were evident worldwide:

  • a remarkable quantitative expansion;
  • a great diversification in institutional structures, programmes and study methods; and
  • significant financial limitations.

These trends were qualified by the confirmation that the gap between developed and developing countries' higher education and research status was deepening.

It was also noted that despite the expansion, access to higher education in developing countries is still insufficient and reveals inequities between regions, within regions, between countries, and, frequently, even within a country. Thus, while in the United States of America 60 per cent of the relevant age group was enrolled in universities, the figure dropped to 18 per cent in Chile, 39 per cent in Argentina, and 11 per cent in Brazil.

VI. The Basic Equality Principle

The fact that large amounts of resources are needed to maintain growth-even insufficient growth-led many experts to generate a false debate, encouraging a war between education levels. Let us not forget that the education system is a whole and that the good operation of one of its levels has a favourable impact on all the other levels. UNESCO takes this fact into consideration in its higher education programme, and has set as one of its priorities the contribution of higher education to the development of a whole education system (teaching personnel training, research on education, innovations, new technologies, etc.).

However, here again, universities should not avoid facts and must deal with the issue of insufficient financial resources. At this stage, UNESCO advocates the idea that public support for higher education is still essential, but that higher education institutions must try to find new sources of finance.

This does not necessarily mean that it advocates as a basic principle for every country the introduction of enrollment fees or the radical and brutal increase of enrollment fees where they already exist, as suggested by some international experts. This is indeed a thorny issue and, personally, I believe that decisions in this respect are linked to national sovereignty where no international expert has the right to try to impose the collection or not of enrollment or tuition fees upon any sovereign nation.

But we must defend the principle of equality. What can we do to guarantee access based on merit and not on the financial ability or social background of the candidates who wish to take up higher education? Lately we have seen that countries where the fees system was adopted, have seen an increased elitisation of the system-an obviously undemocratic result.

The introduction of scholarships is presented as a solution, but experts sometimes forget that it is often the poorer students or those who live outside metropolitan areas who do not have access to information. And in a corrupt world where bureaucracy sets in quite easily, objective criteria are not always followed when awarding scholarships. In summary, what sometimes may seem to be a democratic solution, i.e., everybody pays and we help those who cannot pay, results in an escalation of injustice.

Strangely, this analysis also shows that experts, many of whom are competent economists, have forgotten certain fundamental issues such as, How much will the collection of fees cost? What will be the amount needed to install an efficient scholarship system?

VII. Accountability to Society

But the strong worldwide trend in practically every country is for higher education institutions to be accountable to society: neither governments nor parliaments nor the people accept the idea of a blank cheque, particularly when the media, sometimes in a sensationalist manner, explore variances of some systems or corporate attitudes of many members of the university community.

It is true that in most cases what government wants to achieve with assessment is the creation of control mechanisms over higher education. But this is an aberration. The democratic system wants differing positions and debates and dialogue which lead to universally accepted decisions. Incompatible antagonisms serve no useful purpose. When differing positions arise, someone has to launch a serious discussion on the subject. As a member of the sixties student generation, I would add that there is a right time for barricades but there is also a right time for dialogue, without setting aside the principles of social justice. Fortunately in most countries of Latin America, we no longer live under dictatorships. One can disagree with the government but if it was elected by the people, it is legitimate, and universities must negotiate without losing their critical awareness. It is not always easy to be democratic.

Universities in many places have decided to forestall government initiatives and launch self-assessment programmes. This entails some progress. But I hasten to add that it is probably not enough. If universities have no confidence in government assessments, it is easy to understand that the government and other sectors of society impose restrictions on a process which disappears inside the walls of higher education institutions.

There is also a strong worldwide trend towards external assessments which are considered to be an objective analysis tool at a given point in time of the level of compliance with which universities fulfill their mission and respond to society's needs. Furthermore, higher education institutions which are considered to be efficient have nothing to fear from an objectively run evaluation.

The problem, then, lies in finding out who must shoulder the responsibility for them. Higher education institutions frequently, and rightfully, fear political influence when assessed by government bodies. They want to avoid any impact on their autonomy. When this happens in Latin America, where the tradition of autonomy is deeply rooted in the history of the peoples and, furthermore, it was the tool that contributed to the reaction against dictatorship, it is easy to understand that the issue is not only thorny but also not easily subjected to objective analysis. Authorities cannot ignore these facts.

Who will be responsible for assessment processes? Parliament? An independent commission? There are no universal rules in this matter that can be applied to every country in the same way. This must be the result of negotiations between the university community, government bodies, and Parliament. Negotiation is an integral part of the democratic system. In post-dictatorial times, in particular, any decision taken must involve all interested parties.

VIII. World Conferences on Higher Education

In view of the current debate worldwide, UNESCO decided to organise a world conference in 1998 on the mission of higher education at the end of this century. It will be preceded by four regional conferences, the first one of which was held in Havana, Cuba, from 18 to 22 November 1996. The African conference will be held in Dakar, Senegal, at the end of March 1997, the Arab countries will hold their conference in Beirut, Lebanon, in April 1997, and the Asia-Pacific conference will be held in Tokyo, with the United Nations University, in July 1997. For Europe, the activity will be promoted jointly with the Association of European Universities-CRE-first in Palermo, Italy, in September 1997 and then in Bucharest, Romania, in April 1998.

The aims of the World Conference will be:

  1. to define the basic principles supporting a profound transformation of higher education through which it may become the efficient promoter of a culture of peace, grounded on sustainable human development based on equality, democracy, justice, and freedom;

  2. to contribute to the improvement of the relevance and quality of its training, research, and extension functions, offering equal opportunities to all through permanent education without frontiers, where merit is the fundamental criterion for access; and

  3. to strengthen inter-university cooperation by mobilising all those people who are a part of higher education.

IX. The Latin American and the Caribbean Conference

Some 700 participants from 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries met in Havana, Cuba, from 18 to 22 November 1996, within the framework of the Regional Conference on Policies and Strategies for the Transformation of Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The conference agenda included the following topics:

  1. Relevance of higher education;
  2. Quality, assessment, and accreditation of higher education;
  3. Management and financing of higher education;
  4. Knowledge and the use of new information and communication technologies;
  5. Re-orientation of international cooperation in the field of higher education.

Over 100 rectors were present, representatives of student organisations from at least eight countries, leaders of rectors' councils, representatives of non-governmental organisations and national, sub-regional, regional, and international associations associated to higher education, teachers' unions, representatives of several organisations, including SELA, the World Bank, the Bolivar Programme, etc.

The participants adopted a declaration on higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean and some guidelines for the preparation of a CRESALC-the Regional Centre for Higher Education for Latin America and the Caribbean-action plan to develop inter-university cooperation in the region and to improve its quality and relevance.

The document takes into consideration the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, in article 26, that "every person has a right to an education . . ." and that "every person must have equal access to higher education, as a function of their respective merits . . .," and a series of other documents recently drafted in the United Nations and UNESCO. It reaffirms the importance of higher education for the development of the people and insists on the need for a complete transformation of the system in the region. Inter-university cooperation is presented as essential to the promotion of knowledge and facilitation of its application for development. Public support is seen as a vital component which will enable higher education to face the challenges of its mission.

Some 16 preparatory meetings covering the items on the agenda were organised for this conference. Seldom has an international meeting been attended by such assiduous and motivated participants with a keen interest in discussing the subject matter. It is hoped that the conclusions will now lead to action in the whole region. Such results will also constitute the Latin American contribution to the preparations for the 1998 World Conference. Henceforth, they will serve as a foundation and example to the other regional conferences elsewhere in the world.

X. The Threat of an Excessive Search for Profitability

This is an important issue because in the recent past higher education was considered essential for development, while nowadays many, including many in international organisations dealing with education, act as though this were untrue, as if developing countries could attain real independence without an efficient and quality tertiary training and research system. Such positions confirm the resurgence of what the French economist Francois Perroux defined as "economicism," or the search for cost/profit at any price, the identification of markets as the determining and exclusive factor in human life. This assumes a mechanical conception of history in which all societies must follow the same processes and roads to reach the soit-disant well-being of rich, industrialised countries. It is a vision based on ethnocentrism where economics explains it all and solves it all.

This is indeed prejudicial to developing countries. Ana Maria Cetto, of the Autonomous University of Mexico, is right in saying that in Latin America, "We pertain to the large periphery of the present world system, in the economical sense, in the political sense and, of course, in science as well". This must change and, as she says, we must be "ready for the transition between dependence and interdependence, and select our own evolution modes within this context."

XI. The Position of Chile

It is indeed very auspicious that this meeting is held in Chile immediately after the first Regional Preparatory Conference for the World Conference on Higher Education. For many, Chile is at the end of the world, or is, at least, situated on the other side of the Range . . . an impression that airlines strive to reinforce. Personally, I traveled over 25 hours to reach Santiago from Paris, and I can imagine the number of hours put in by other members of the Council, such as Ambassador Kagami from Tokyo or Dr. Ngu from Cameroon.

But, at the same time, Chile is a country which, after the dictatorship, managed to create a very positive image everywhere. It is seen as a beautiful land with cultured people, an organised country where institutions work. In the field of education, Chile is used by international institutions as a model to be followed by other developing countries.

As a matter of fact, Chile has always had a democratic tradition, which used to lead my Chilean colleagues in Paris in the late sixties (for example, the economist and teacher, Pio Garcia) to consider any military coup attempt in this country as an impossibility. The then Rector of the University of Chile, Professor Boeninger, used to say that in this country it was possible to satisfy the basic needs of the successive emerging sectors within a democratic framework. This is not the place to review the military interregnum, a regional phenomenon of the seventies, which affected most of South America.

But, similar to Spain in the post-Franco era, Chile has achieved a transition period-to some it is too long-and it is good, from time to time, to see on the screens of the world Minister Jose Joaquin Brunner defuse artificial crises by acknowledging, for example, the right of free speech to representatives of a past order, but recalling that every citizen has only one vote in a democratic regime.

Ernesto Ottone, of ECLAC, had foreseen at the end of the military rule, that "after all, the political and intellectual elite of the country has a grave responsibility because the possibility of creating the requirement conditions for a non-violent transition from authoritarian to democratic rule will depend on its behaviour and guiding leadership."

Political realism, in association with economic realism, helps us see Chilean fruit on European supermarkets, coming from the southern summer to the northern cold months. The same realism has led Chile to become a member of Mercosur after realising that NAFTA was just a mirage. This improves the image of the country and has an impact on the image of the model adopted for higher education. This is why, as I said earlier, this is such an important meeting.

During the military regime, the university in Chile underwent reforms. Already in the nineties the Concerted Action government has launched a new era of reforms maintaining past devices, including support for military initiatives, but striving to adapt universities to the needs of a new Chile. The system still keeps a positive image overseas. But there are questions, some of which have arisen after reading articles and editorials which, quite naturally, give the impression of limiting debate to the problem of finding sources of finance and managing funds.

Other issues come to us from reading reviews and surveys, such as the one coordinated by Jose Joaquin Brunner, which examined several organisations in the early nineties and which resulted in the publication of the paper "Higher Education in Latin America: an agenda for the year 2000." Page 34, paragraph number 3 in particular states, under the title "Samples of inequities":

In the case of Chile, where higher education is not free, only 5.8 per cent of the lower income quintile, between 18 and 24 years of age, and 8.2 per cent of the quintile immediately following this age group, were enrolled in higher education in 1990 (MIDEPLAN, 1991:21). The eight traditional universities (public) capture students from the high and middle-high strata (39 per cent coming from the V quintile and 63.5 per cent from the IV and V quintiles). Regional public universities, on the other hand, have 28.8 per cent of students coming from 40 per cent of the poorest households. Private universities capture students mainly from the high strata (72.1 per cent of the V quintile).

Furthermore, I have just received a report from CINDA (the Inter-University Development Centre) and USAID (United States Agency for International Development), dated May 1996, prepared by Douglas Keare, Hector Oyarce, and Morgan Doyle, which under the title "Decentralization Improvement Programme," analyses the prospects for regional universities.

Does this mean that Chile will give priority to regional universities which, statistics tell us, are more accessible to the poorer strata of the population? Democracy is a slow and protracted process. Democracy is not created by decree, and even less by a coup. Furthermore, we know that where there is movement, there is life. In Chile, you see, there is much movement, there are reforms in progress, there are debates, problems are dealt with, and this is a positive thing.

Thirty years ago, I read in one night a novel by the Brazilian author, relatively unknown overseas, but who, together with Jorge Amado, is the best Brazilian writer in my opinion: Erico Verissimo. I remember details of this old reading, but as a whole, I retain in my mind what the French call "un vague souvenir." The book ends with a reference to Antares-that is to say Brazil-where life was better organised, streets were cleaner, order was assured, but the population was unhappy because it was not free. Chile has attained freedom. Its population, its entire population, is it happy? In these last few years of this century, what contribution can Chile make to the continent and the world to strengthen official democracy, as well as social democracy, in which everybody in this Latin America so full of inequities can participate and be happy?

We have heard Rector Jaime Lavados Montes. We are going to hear the words of Jose Joaquin Brunner and, I hope, other Chilean participants. We are very much looking forward to your replies.

Thank you!

This text is based on a series of speeches presented by the author during the last twelve months in several parts of the world. The basic structure is taken from the paper published by CRESALC/UNESCO in September 1996, in issue number 7 of the series Policies and Strategies under the title "Higher Education with a view to the 21st Century"-Minutes of the meeting co-sponsored by UNESCO and the Executive Committee of the University of Bolivia (CEUB), Cochabamba, June 1996.

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