EI put the case for a new approach to public higher education and research at a high-profile meeting of Education Ministers from 35 countries, convened by the OECD in Athens, Greece, this week (27-28 June).
EI cooperated closely with the Trade Union Advisory Committee at the OECD, and the National Unions of Students in Europe, ESIB.
The theme of the Ministerial meeting was Higher Education: Quality, Equity and Efficiency. In a joint letter to Ministers, EI and ESIB pointed out that equity figured less prominently than the other two themes. At a consultation prior to the official opening, Bob Harris, leading the TUAC/EI delegation, said that Ministers had “to put equity and equality of opportunity at the centre of our goals and value systems”. “Higher tuition fees, growing student debt and privatization all worked against equity”, he said.
EI, TUAC and ESIB pointed out that the growing commercialization of higher education had adversely affected the quality of education, and stated that “Assuring quality in higher education also requires that governments and institutions recognize the importance of attracting and retaining qualified staff”.
They insisted that the path to efficiency required collegial governance structures enabling teachers, students and other stakeholders to participate in change, rather than having change imposed upon them. TUAC acknowledged the role of business as stakeholders, while also insisting on the role of the labour movement representing working families. TUAC and EI drew attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stating that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit”.
The TUAC/EI delegation found the contribution of employers, represented at OECD by the Business and Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC) to be constructive. BIAC recognized the importance of education for general development as well as vocational preparation, and supported the call on governments to accept their responsibilities. TUAC and EI questioned however the assumption that management models from the business world could be applied to higher education and warned that rules are needed for governing private sponsorship of research. Both TUAC/EI and BIAC supported the recently adopted voluntary guidelines of OECD and UNESCO for quality provision in cross-border higher education.
The Ministerial was preceded on 26 June by a meeting of EI higher education affiliates from several OECD countries. As a follow-up of the discussions held in Melbourne last December with the OECD Secretariat , participants discussed the revised four scenarios on the future of universities and agreed to present an alternative scenario for “the Public Service University”.
EI’s scenario is characterized by public funding, integration of teaching and research, tenure and academic freedom, and equity and access for students. The Greek government decided to shift the location of the Ministerial Conference 40 km outside Athens, to avoid demonstrations held by staff and students unions (over tuition fees and privatization). Staff have been on strike since the beginning of June to protest against the planned reform and to support students who have occupied most of the academic departments in the country. EI took the opportunity of this meeting to meet with the leadership of the Greek University teachers’ union.
The consultation with TUAC and BIAC was chaired by the Danish Minister for Education, and many OECD countries were represented. The Danish Minister emphasized the importance of taking time for dialogue and full consultation with the social partners before introducing change (implicitly in contrast to the Greek approach of imposing change without dialogue).
At the official opening, the new Secretary General of OECD, Mr. Angel Gurria, former Finance Minister of Mexico, made a strong and controversial speech calling for change in Higher Education. He argued: `One model that surely doesn’t work is the one which quite a few countries are saddled with, particularly in Europe. In these countries, higher education is publicly financed for the most part, but is inadequately resourced to meet the costs of expansion.’
However, rather than arguing that governments should increase public funding of higher education, Mr Gurria stressed the OECD view “that contributions from graduates to the costs of study can be an efficient way of increasing resources”. He also offered OECD’s support for a new PISA for Higher Education; however the meeting concluded with no clear consensus on this matter. The Secretary General’s views were reflected in the final communiqué released by the Greek Minister as Chair of the meeting.
EI, TUAC and ESIB representatives also participated in an open forum on the Future of Higher Education. David Robinson of CAUT Canada, and Carolyn Allport of NTEU Australia, intervened on the link between teaching and research in higher education, and the future scenarios being developed by the OECD Secretariat.
The audience comprising Ministers, ministerial staff and stakeholders expressed strong skepticism towards the four scenarios and their applicability to higher education systems.
This was an important meeting, where EI and its partners, TUAC and ESIB, had a real impact. But EI and its partners will have to consult rapidly on next steps to be taken in the light of the positions taken by the new OECD Secretary General.