Wednesday, 1 July 2009

UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge

This week University World News marks the UNESCO Forum's new report with a special edition.

UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge was established in 2001 to follow up the outcomes of two major UNESCO world conferences: the 1998 World Conference on Higher Education and the 1999 World Conference on Science. The Forum provides a global platform for critical engagement with research issues and findings; its mandate is to help chart, analyse and broaden understanding of the systems, structures, policies, trends and developments in higher education, research and innovation.

With the conclusion of the first phase, the UNESCO Forum has just published a Research Report, Systems of Higher Education, Research and Innovation: Changing dynamics, edited by Lynn Meek, Ulrich Teichler and Mary-Louise Kearney. The report takes stock of the numerous and rapid changes of the past decade, identifies new trends in global knowledge systems, and synthesises the Forum’s main findings. In this special edition, University World News provides a summary of the Forum’s decade-long efforts as encapsulated in the Research Report.

Research on research

Mary-Louise Kearney, Director of the UNESCO Forum for Higher Education, Research and Knowledge, looks at the Knowledge Society, the growing importance of higher education, research and innovation systems, and global inequalities in the resourcing, production and dissemination of knowledge. Key findings and strategies arising from the Forum’s global work over the past decade are described, and Berit Olsson and Thandika Mkandawire trace the Forum’s work and explain why it should continue.

The importance of ‘research on research’
The inexorable advance of the Knowledge Society and Knowledge Economy – both fuelled by higher education, research and innovation (HERI) systems that have undergone profound changes in the past decade – have made ‘research on research’ increasingly important to all countries, whatever their level of development. A new meta-dynamic that has emerged has been the observation and study of ‘knowledge systems’ in which higher education, research and innovation activities have converged and become strategically interlinked.

Some research findings and strategies
Global research by UNESCO has found that key factors in responding effectively to the changing dynamics of higher education, research and innovation systems include recognising the knowledge dividend, reinforcing the role of HERI systems in knowledge-based societies, reaffirming the right to research, and learning from positive and negative experiences.

Compelling rationale for a UNESCO Forum
In its first 10 years of existence, the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge has proved its potential as an arena for researchers to present original studies and research on the common ground between universities, research and innovation. Aggregated data gathered and generated by the Forum builds a way of assessing trends over time and making comparative country-by-country assessments.

Policy dynamics in higher education and research

Lynn Meek and Dianne Davies chart the evolution of higher education, research and innovation over the past decades. Rapid and fundamental changes in governance and funding, the involvement of social stakeholders, and diversified missions have altered the knowledge landscape, and new roles for universities in HERI systems and relationships between research and teaching have been forged and have manifested themselves across all regions.

Trends in higher education governance and funding
Universities and colleges the world over have undergone profound transformations in the past three decades. The changes to institutions and the nature of academic work have no precedent in the history of post-secondary education. Public resources have declined significantly and in the fiscal crisis ideas of universities as producers of public goods have been substituted by notions of ‘entrepreneurial universities’ and of excellence, by managerial goals such as ‘productivity’ or ‘efficiency’, and by the privatisation of educational supply and financing.

Funding and resources: Doing more for less
Trends in the financing of higher education are placing research at risk, even though it has become increasingly important for the Knowledge Economy, for the preservation of cultures and for tackling social and political problems. In finding solutions to the financial threats they face, institutions must support both their instructional and research missions – especially research that is basic or risky or likely to suffer if left solely to the commercial market.

Patterns of differentiation
Higher education has expanded rapidly since World War II and with it, issues of diversity that affect almost every aspect of the sector – access and equity, teaching methods and how students learn, priorities in research, quality, management, social relevance and finance. However, academics have long debated the character and extent of diversity and have even asked: Is diversity a worthwhile goal? Or should differentiation be the real aim?

The teaching-research nexus
In a perfect world there would be perfect research universities delivering perfect high quality courses, and the more ground-breaking research undertaken by academics the better their teaching would become, with new knowledge passed on to students. But the fact is that when professors are researching they are not teaching and vice versa – there is often conflict at the teaching-research nexus.

Changing challenges of academic work

Ulrich Teichler and Yasemin Yağci investigate the impact of developments in higher education, research and knowledge on academia – including the effects of internationalisation and global mobility on countries, the status of academics and researchers, the future of research careers, trends shaping the internationalisation of knowledge, and the consequences of applying new theories in a culturally diverse world.

Impacts of internationalisation and the research gap
Students from Arab countries, and not from China, make up the biggest proportion of people from a region or country studying abroad – and if one is searching for a winner in north-south research initiatives, look no further than Brazil. Those are two interesting surprises revealed by a study undertaken for the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge.

More tasks, less freedom for professors
The role of professors around the world has been altered by a push for more applied research, a growing list of administrative tasks and increasingly managerial-style control by universities. In many countries academics are obliged to spend too much time teaching with little left over for research – and even when there is time, academics may be swamped by paperwork and lack freedom to pursue a chosen line of research.

Quality and relevance in higher education and research
The academic world urgently needs a critical discussion on what is meant by ‘good’ research. While there is no single yardstick for assessing research quality across all disciplines, regions and cultures, this does not make the question of quality irrelevant. On the contrary, the issue concerning appropriate criteria for assessing the quality of research should be on the agenda wherever it is being conducted.

The cultural setting of research
Researchers in economically advanced countries exert considerable influence on their colleagues in low- and middle-income countries. Whether the latter unconsciously absorb or consciously follow the presumed success stories they read or hear about, or whether they are affected by researchers who have studied abroad and bring these attitudes back home with them, they adopt the same approaches they believe will improve the quality of their work and help modernise the higher education and research taking place in their own nations.

Comparative study of national research systems

While sociology of science and science policy research have grown rapidly in the past five decades, and comparative analyses of science systems have flourished, most studies have not focused on developing countries. Johann Mouton and Roland Waast present the findings and lessons of a comprehensive review of the research systems of 52 developing countries around the world, probing the realities of and reasons for a widening knowledge production gap as well as issues related to human capacity and scientific capital, and the role of universities.

The knowledge divide: Realities and reason
A growing gap in knowledge production exists not only between high-income and other countries but also within the developing world – between a handful of ‘emerging’ countries, intermediary nations numbering five to 10 on each continent, and a remaining 100 countries whose productivity remains very small (60 countries) or minute (40 countries). Stagnating research means some nations have lost their relative share of global knowledge production – but the burning question for the developing world is one of critical mass and the resources required to maintain scientific quality and build a new generation of scientists.

Human capacity, scientific capital
The health of a country’s research is inseparable from the fortunes of its researchers and the areas within which they work. And numbers matter. Research production is roughly indexed on the volume of staff – in countries and institutions – and the bigger that is, the greater the diversity of topics and approaches.

Measuring R&D in developing countries

Simon Ellis, Ernesto Fernandez-Polcuch and Rohan Pathirage tackle tensions between the international comparability of knowledge systems and their impact on policy relevance. Instruments such as the OECD’s Frascati Manual operate as respected references due to the breadth of their bibliometric analysis and data. But such data may not be readily available in other social contexts. A strategy of adaptation is advocated to assemble reliable indicators that can lead to appropriate, evidence-based policies.

Comparability and policy relevance of R&D indicators
Science, technology and innovation indicators for measuring and comparing the knowledge systems of developing countries need to be specially redesigned to take into account the very different conditions and characteristics of these countries. The challenge is how to make statistics and indicators both cross-nationally comparable and able to adequately reflect a country’s specific economic and societal features.

A future research agenda

Mala Singh suggests crucial elements for a future UNESCO Forum agenda so that ‘research on research’ may continue to advance at all levels of enquiry. The operation of knowledge systems is complex, and must remain both context-specific and globally interconnected. Issues such as the politics of knowledge, the relationship between science and ethics, and safeguarding transfer of research benefits to deserving recipients are universal concerns.

Redefining knowledge and development
After 10 years of analysising systems around the world, the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge needs to redefine key concepts that underpin research and innovation and their contributions to development. Profiles and analyses of emerging knowledge systems in low- and middle-income nations have provided a vital building block – but it is limited in usefulness as the basis for new and more effective ways of linking knowledge with development for the benefit of developing nations.

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