Education International
Education International

Opening remarks by Fred van Leeuwen, EI General Secretary, at the 7th International Higher Education and Research Conference, Vancouver, 10-12 September 2010

published 10 September 2010 updated 22 March 2011



Welcome to our seventh higher education and research conference. A particular welcome to our colleagues from CONADU, Argentina and SNESUP, France, which joined EI since we last met in Malaga two years ago. And let me also thank CAUT and its BC members for hosting this conference and for their contributions. For me it is always a great pleasure to take part in your conferences. A pleasure be it a challenging one.

Yes, It is the 7th time since the creation of EI in 1993 that we assemble our members in  the higher education and research sector. And not without reason. The challenges confronting higher education and research staff around the world are  unprecedented. Sure, we have made important progress, notably in achieving the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation of the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel. We also had an important influence on the UNESCO/OECD Guidelines on Transnational Provision of Higher Education, as well as the evolution of the GATS at the World Trade Organization. We continue to monitor GATS, as we do the developments at the OECD – the review of tertiary education and the feasibility study for AHELO. In Europe, we have been more or less successfully engaged in the Bologna process.

But even as we have enhanced our capacity to influence and to act, changes are underway to an unparalleled degree. This conference provides the occasion for us to reflect together on those changes, on the challenges, and on the actions we can take collectively going forward.

In Vancouver this week we have, I believe, the most representative of all the higher education and research conferences convened by EI so far, with representatives of 49 organizations in 33 countries . This testifies to the growing importance of the global dimension of union work in the sector. It also highlights our need for both collective reflection and collective action. At our previous conference we have said that we should give more attention to developments outside the OECD area and more actively seek the involvement of organizations in, for example, Latin America. I believe it to be a very positive development that from this region organisations in Brazil, Peru and Argentina have recently joined our ranks. (Botswana, Malaysia)

Higher education and research is by nature confronted more than any other sector of education by global trends. The sector faces the full force of change. One of the most important of these global trends is the impact of the market of both privatization and commercialization of higher education.

Privatization is taking different forms in different countries. We have the example of public universities setting up campuses as private enterprises in other countries. We have public-private partnerships in research funding, partnerships that often compromise the integrity and independence of scientific inquiry.

One of the greatest concerns is the all pervasive nature of the market. In many countries, public institutions must cover substantial portions of their budgets from non-public sources, including fees for students and their families. External funding of higher education and research programmes has become the obsession of many if not all university and college leaders around the globe. I have the - some would say disputable - honour of being invited to the annual meeting of the WEF in Davos and it is always fascinating to observe university leaders schmoozing corporate business leaders.

From this shift to private funding, there is an inevitable shift to a market-based approach to employment and governance. Hence the dramatic increase in fixed term contracts for teaching and research staff, the erosion of tenure and with it, as we all know, the loss of academic freedom. Let there be no misunderstanding: The concept of collegial governance is alien to the market-based model, and it is being undercut.

Against this privatized vision, we must more forcefully articulate why higher education and research is important as a public service, as I would also submit that the way forward lies in reaffirming the role of higher education staff as actors in society, as those on the front-line tackling the major challenges we face today.

One example, is the critical role that academic resarchers must play in promoting sustainable development in the face of global warming – perhaps the greatest ticking time bomb we face today.

Another example is the need for us to work closely with universities and colleges on tackling the worldwide shortage of qualified teachers, the teachers our communities must have to assure Quality Education for All, and the need for much improved and more accessible professional development programmes for our collegues in primary and secondary education.

Next month EI and other global unions ( PSI, ITF, IFJ, UNI) will convene an international conference in Geneva where we will launch a worldwide campaign to defend and promote quality public services. The purpose of the conference is to mobilize unions from both the public and private sector as well as national trade union confederations which we believe, have a crucial role to play to prevent the further deterioration and sell out of public services, including education, in countries struggling to cope with the financial crisis and looking for a cheap way out.

The issues and challenges facing higher education and research are to be found increasingly in other sectors, in vocational education and training, in general education, in early childhood education. And our members in each of these sectors will benefit greatly from interaction with members in other sectors. And in this regard, our members in higher education and research have - again - a critical role to play.

I would like to use the opportunity of this Conference :

to launch a global on-line petition calling on the Colombian government to release Miguel Ángel Beltrán Villegas, a university professor and unionist who has been held in prison for more than a year on charges that violate his exercise of academic freedom and the fundamental right to freedom of thought and expression  and to invite you to support and disseminate broadly this petition to your constituencies and networks

I very much look forward to the debates in the coming days which I would consider also as an input to the next EI World Congress, in Cape Town, in 10 months time.

In calling for robust reflection and plans for effective action, I wish us all a successful conference.