The World Conference on Higher Education

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Paris in July will always serve as an excellent motivator for participants to attend a World Conference. True to form, over 1500 government Ministers, policy makers and academics have gathered this week at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris for the second World Conference on Higher Education. The first took place in 1998 and attracted an even larger crowd and the discussions from that event have provided the point of departure for this year's debates. The conference title is The New Dynamics of Higher Education and Research for Societal Change and Development and effectively explores global developments in higher education over the past decade. The discussions are driven by three themes:

  • Internationalization, Regionalization and Globalization
  • Equity, Access and Quality
  • Learning, Research and Innovation

In his opening remarks, Nick Burnett, Assistant Director General for Education at UNESCO, identified some of the 'new dynamics' that have had a significant impact on the higher education sector in the past ten years—one of which was the tremendous growth in private education, which was couched in terms of 'increasing diversity', but could easily have been part of the access and quality debate. He noted that private higher education has been one of the fastest-growing trends since the last conference. Indeed, as a participant at that earlier event, private education was not on the agenda and only mentioned in disparaging terms where the topic arose at all. This time round it is different. 

Prior to the conference, UNESCO commissioned an edited publication to provide a basis for the organisation's engagement in this subject. The result, A New Dynamic: Private Higher Education, provides a snapshot of developments in private higher education in 2009. It is not meant as an exhaustive treatise on the subject; rather, it illuminates a number of different issues, including recently updated data on enrollment numbers (now in the region of 30% of participation globally and over 70% in some countries in Asia and Latin America), financial consideration, quality assurance, regulatory concerns and public-private partnerships. The publication was launched at the conference and has generated quite a bit of interest—mostly from those adamantly opposed to private sector provision and holding stridently to the view that education at all levels should be a public good.

As editor of the publication, I was invited to organize a session on private education at the conference. The session took place today and was called 'Private Higher Education: Responding to Global Demand' and featured speakers from Ghana, Morocco, Colombia and the UK. Two of the speakers were former senior government ministers who had implemented significant policy change in their respective countries to facilitate growth in private higher education, another is the President of a university in Ghana, with which the IFC is a partner, and the final participant is a former university President/Vice Chancellor from a public institution who now is working closely with one of the largest private sector providers globally. The 90 minute session provided the context for very lively debate.

But what next? What influence will this gathering have on the next decade of developments in higher education? The conference 'communique' is the tool through which organisers and participants have a voice to identify the issues that have come to the fore and which deserve further consideration. Given the vast number of issues raised and debated this week, I am pleased to see that private provision has been raised in the communique AND in a positive light. The final draft states: "Private higher education has an important role to play as the fastest growing sub-sector of higher education worldwide...". The test will be to see whether the positive tone remains through to the issuance of the final communiqué at conference end.

At year end 2009, 58% of IFC's Health and Education Group’s education portfolio is invested in the higher education sector through both direct investment (75% of projects) and student loan schemes. However, it represents over 80% of the total education commitments by volume—some $290k. For more information on IFC's investments in private education see our website:


Svava Bjarnason

Senior Education Specialist, IFC

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