On behalf of Education International, the largest global union federation, representing 30 million teachers and education workers worldwide, with 406 affiliate unions in 172 countries and territories, I am pleased to address the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education.
This gathering comes a decade after the first World Conference on Higher Education. This is also the 12th anniversary of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel that sets out the basic employment and academic rights of staff necessary to ensure the provision of quality education. However, in too many places around the world these basic rights have been ignored. And yet, academic staff are at the heart of the public mission of higher education. No institution or system can be successful without a talented and committed professoriate. Higher education institutions and systems must offer academic staff adequate salaries, full-time career opportunities with appropriate job security and tenure, an effective voice in academic governance, and firm guarantees of academic freedom. It is an absolute scandal that in many countries today a growing share of academic staff are employed in precarious fixed-term and part-time positions with low pay, few or no benefits, and without protection for academic freedom. This is not only unfair to them, but will have long-term implications for the integrity of the higher education mission. It is time that you, member states of UNESCO, fully respect and implement the principles in the 1997 Recommendation. We are meeting today against the backdrop of a number of global challenges. In particular, the world is now confronting a serious economic recession, the most severe in the post-war period. It is an economic crisis that is truly global in scope and one that is destroying the jobs and livelihoods of millions, and increasing inequality within and between nations. The crisis we now face must not however be used as a pretext for reducing investments in higher education. It must not be an excuse for delaying the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, including Education for All. It must not be used to implement failed neo-liberal policies. Public funding of education is not a cost. It is a sound and proven investment that will stimulate a recovery and build long-term sustainable growth. Unfortunately, we increasingly see higher education systems suffering from inadequate public investment. Many governments are reducing spending on higher education and research, leading to faculty and staff lay-offs, caps on enrolment, research funding cuts, and reductions in course offerings. Let us be absolutely clear: such short-sighted actions threaten to undermine the public mission of higher education and research, and to impede the economic, social and cultural development of our nations. The economic crisis is having most effects in developing countries. We therefore welcome the special attention paid by this Conference to the needs of Africa. The strengthening of higher education in Africa is essential for the long-term development of the continent and will require, among other things, significantly greater development assistance commitments from the developed world. UNESCO has a critical role to play in facilitating ways to strengthen higher education in the continent. As Education International, we are determined to do out part by strengthening links between staff unions within Africa and internationally, and to assist in establishing employment conditions and professional rights that allow for high quality education and research to flourish. Delegates, higher education and research is a public service that contributes to the social, cultural and economic development of communities, regions, and nations. Consequently, higher education institutions should operate according to clearly defined public service principles: equality of access, affordability, high standards of quality, and public responsibility. We urge member states to use the occasion of the next few days to affirm that higher education and research is a public good and a public service. It is your responsibility as States to ensure that institutions receive adequate public funding and to work in partnership with the academic community to make sure that institutions meet key criteria on quality, access, and the conditions of staff and students. Let me conclude by saying that the higher education sector needs and values UNESCO. We as educators are ready to work with UNESCO and other partners to assure that higher education and research is prepared to meet the challenges before us. But we can only do so if our basic employment and academic rights are respected. Only then we will be able to ensure that higher education and research can fulfill its mandate of building sustainable economic growth, social cohesion, and a culture of peace. Thank you.