On 17 October 2015, 130 leaders from universities, colleges, regional, transnational and international associations as well as global networks from Africa, Arab countries, Asia, North America, Oceania and South America identified a series of strategic initiatives and actions aimed at addressing on a regional basis key challenges to help meet the sustainable development goals recently adopted by the United Nations in Paris in September 2015. The Minister of Training, Colleges & Universities, for Ontario, Canada, Reza Moridi gave opening remarks. Dr Bakary Diallo, Rector of African Virtual University, closed the day long forum with a message “Where we should go from here.”
This High Level Policy Forum organized by the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) in partnership with UNESCO, Commonwealth of Learning (COL), Open Education Consortium (OEC) and hosted by the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria South Africa on 17 October 2015 was unanimous in pointing to the issues of equity in terms of access to and success in higher education, the skills gap and the need for investments in life-long learning,
Delegates at the High Level Policy Forum agreed that policies aimed at enabling access to online learning, support for learner mobility and the strengthening of transnational qualifications agreements were essential components of a 21st century higher education strategy.
Professor Mandla Makhanya, Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Africa (UNISA) and host of the High Level Policy Forum pointed out that “just expanding existing universities or building new ones based on classroom teaching will not meet the demand or the need for higher education in the developing world”.
Professor Asha Kanwar, President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning, said that “open and distance learning can make a real difference to the wellbeing and livelihoods of citizens and contribute significantly to meeting the development goals of nations as demonstrated in work throughout the Commonwealth”.
James Glapa-Grossklag, President of the Board of Directors of the Open Education Consortium stressed the “need for policymakers to support the adoption of OERs through action around copyright, professional development, and resource sharing.”
Gard Titlestad, Secretary General of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), stressed that “meeting the sustainable development goals requires real investment and innovation in higher education – business as usual will not produce the breakthroughs in social and economic development the world needs. Innovation in how we deliver education as well as what that education is focused upon are needed for all of our futures”.
The Forum also pointed to the need to:
• Strengthen quality assurance processes and practices in higher education
• Make available affordable broadband infrastructure to more people throughout the developing and developed world
• Implement policies and supports for learners often unable to access higher education so as to ensure their ready access and success in higher education
• Implement policies and practices which support the widespread access and use of licensed educational resources (OERs)
• Treat online learning equally with face-to-face learning
• Invest in professional development for faculty and those engaged in supporting learners
• Strengthen collaboration between universities and between universities and employers so as to narrow the skills gap and ensure the relevance and value of a university education
• Engage and involve students in the planning and development of higher education
The Forum developed preliminary action plans for each region of the world aimed at leveraging higher education to help achieve sustainable development worldwide. In doing so, it built on previous summits in Bali and Paris and the declarations at Incheon and Qingdao. The engagement of higher education in the construction of a global vision and pathway for Education 2030 is critical. With societies moving from a post-industrial information society to a knowledge economy, higher education, as a knowledge producer, has become a major force in the emerging global knowledge society.
The final draft Framework for Action Education 2030, to be adopted by governments on 4 November, states: “A well-established, properly-regulated tertiary education system supported by technology, Open Educational Resources (OERs) and distance education modalities can increase access, equity, quality and relevance, and narrow the gap between what is taught at tertiary education institutions and what economies and societies demand. The provision of tertiary education should be progressively free, in line with existing international agreements.”
Education is a catalyst for development, a key contributor to reducing inequality, as well as an essential condition for accelerating progress towards the achievement of other sustainable development goals. The spectacular progress in internet connectivity, mobile technologies and other digital media, combined with the democratization of access to public education and the development of different forms of private education, is transforming patterns of social, civic and political engagement.
Dr. Bakary Diallo, Rector for African Virtual University, said in his concluding remarks for the Forum that higher education should not be exclusive for the few, and he suggested four keywords for the way ahead: “Communication, Implementation, Collaboration (sharing) and Monitoring the progress.”