Education International
Education International

IFHERC: Challenges still to be faced in tertiary education and research

published 17 November 2016 updated 21 November 2016

Academic freedom, international solidarity, gender, casualisation and privatisation came under the spotlight at Education International’s 10th International Further and Higher Education and Research Conference, attended by leaders of tertiary education and research.

Easy access to high quality education and protection of the weak and vulnerable must be guaranteed. That’s according to Christian Addai-Poku, President of Ghana’s National Association of Graduate Teachers, who addressed the opening ceremony of the Education International (EI) 10th International Further and Higher Education and Research Conference (IFHERC). The conference was held in Ghana, Accra, from 14-16 November.

In addition, quality assurance and the empowerment of women is especially important in terms of higher education academic freedom, he said. Furthermore, the increasing privatisation across the world must be stopped, he said.

EI: Importance of mobilisation and promotion

The EI Chief Regional Coordinator for Africa, Assibi Napoe, underlined how improvement of working conditions for higher education personnel is essential for quality education. She added that it is regrettable that the 1997 International Labour Organisation/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel is not widely known, and she called for the document to be widely promoted. She also invited higher education unions to become active members of the African Higher Education network.

Referring to the recent elections in the USA, EI Deputy General Secretary David Edwards highlighted how quickly politics in a country can change. It is crucial “that we stand united and find real ideas and responses”, he said, reiterating EI’s important role in mobilising for these responses.

In relation to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, he said that EI managed to fight the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) initiative. Edwards also welcomed the fact that EI’s pressure on international institutions led to the inclusion of  tertiary education in the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Education Minister: Union role in SDGs

The conference was also addressed by Ghana’s Education Minister, Naana Jane Opoku-Agyemang. “Education is key to development and has a transformative power,” she said, adding that the conference provided “such a rich context for sharing ideas, with so many countries represented”. The SDGs must be taken seriously, she said, with strategies needed to achieve the goals and make them relevant at national level. Highlighting the important role unions play in shaping the implementation of SDGs, she acknowledged the existence of pressing concerns, such as ethics, professionalism, standards and collective responsibility.

She insisted on the need to look at education systems horizontally and vertically, as “we are all in the same boat, and need to support each other, from early childhood education to higher education”. Privatisation, she said, is “an increasing phenomenon that needs to be halted”.

Privatisation and casualisation: solidarity needed

Privatisation was the focus of a plenary session, where participants addressed the importance of having a solidarity platform to fight privatisation and identify its main actors. Talking about effects of education casualisation, Professor Nelly P. Stromquist, University of Maryland, USA, said that “it is worrisome to observe the persistent development of non-tenure, part-time academic positions,” and that “there is a clear gender dimension to precarious working conditions”. In the US, she explained, whilst there are three key sources for support in making data available - the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, the Delphi Project, and the New Faculty Majority-  the dissemination of information has not resulted in change.

Stromquist also stressed that it appears to be difficult to unionise contingent faculty members given their part-time presence at universities and weak institutional affiliation. Unions need to work closer together for collective action, she said, adding that, in some institutions, an individualistic ethos that accepts competition as an indispensable institutional element prevails. Solidarity from tenure staff is needed, she concluded.

Gender: overcoming barriers in unions, societies and higher education

Participants recognised that academic structures, gender stereotypes, a segregated choice of education, and weak welfare states are major challenges to gender equality in academic careers. They agreed on recommendations for EI, such as the need for all policies to be analysed through a gender lens (within the union, the government, higher education institutions), a special session on higher education and research to be held at the 2017 EI women’s conference; and changes needed to the workings of academic careers,  for them to be gender-sensitive to benefit both women and men.

TVET: Not a “mere transmission of work skills”

The conference also saw the launch of an important report when Professor Leesa Wheelahan, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, launched Global Trends in technical and vocational education and training (TVET): A Framework for Social Justice. Her analysis explored the blame apportioned to TVET teachers for everything from the lack of available jobs to the state of the labour market.

The health of higher education institutions must be considered so that they can build on the productive capabilities of students rather than reducing them to market commodities. “Reducing students to the thinnest possible connection with education and to a mere transmission of work skills is not working for the student or the institution,” she said.

Conference context

This conference brought together the further and higher education and research sectors, and built on the prior experiences and outcomes of previous EI International Higher Education and Research Conferences, as well as the successful first Further and Higher Education Caucus at the 7th World Congress in Ottawa, Canada.

More information about the conference can be found here