The changing role of higher education

   By Suzanne Grant Lewis


Higher education underpins the overall global development agenda.

Universities and colleges are fertile ground for new ideas, innovation and research that shape key sectors such as health and renewable energy and policies that help create cohesive and fair societies. Higher education equips graduates with skills for the workplace, including future teachers who wil prepare the next generation of students. The impact is boundless and helps set the tone for how the world can achieve not only the education-related Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4), but all 17 goals of the 2030 agenda.

Concurrently, we are faced with an opportunity to reimagine a higher education sector that can fully respond to the pressures and challenges of today's world as well as prepare students for a better future. Higher education is rapidly expanding, diversifying, and attracting more students from every background. Yet, as the following pages explain, we also know that as planners and managers of education systems, we must prepare the sector for this transformation, open its resources to as many as possible, and ensure that it is well aligned with the demands set out in the SDGs.

This will entail systemic and institutional changes to ensure that quality does not diminish and relevancy remains at its highest as the sector continues to grow apace. It will mean adapting curricula to meet the demands of a green future, confronting corruption and fraud head on, and opening access to campuses - both virtually and physically - to as many people as possible, men, women, and those who have been displaced or have sought refuge elsewhere.

The effects of instability on higher education can claim lives, destroy infrastructure and send shock waves throughout an entire education system. Addressing higher education within conflict setting and crisis-affected countries is of utmost importance. The advanced skills offered by tertiary education can help heal a country. Yet, too often, efforts to ameliorate the devastating impacts of crisis on education fall short of including higher education. At IIEP, this will require us to address the broader definition of education through sector-wide planning and the establishment of new partnerships and expertise.

It will be impossible for higher education to fulfill its new central role in the SDGs unless it provides equal opportunities and access for more students. A new analysis by IIEP and UNESCO's GEM report, Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind, revealed that only 1 per cent of the poorest have spent more than four years in higher education, compared to 20 per cent of the richest. A combination of policies, as outlined in the paper, must be used to guarantee affordability and equitable access. Let's take advantage of the sector's growth before it is too late and work together to ensure that higher education evolves to serve people in their pursuit of lifelong learning.


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