Higher education in a changing and challenging world

20 April 2022



More students, more providers, more study options – these are a few of the ways higher education has evolved in recent decades. The upcoming World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022), from 18-20 May, will bring some of the latest trends and challenges in focus to design a roadmap for the future. For this occasion, we look back to identify some megatrends, starting from the first World Conference on Higher Education in 1998 and continuing through the years.

Over the past two decades, higher education has grown – and transformed – in many ways. By 2020, worldwide participation in higher education reached 228 million students, up from 82 million in 1995. In the Global North, student numbers have stagnated in recent years. For example, in 2006, the Global South went from having a little over half of global enrolments, to reaching three-quarters in 2018.

But, despite this history of growth, major inequalities persist throughout the world. Only 1% of the poorest students aged 25-29 complete four years of higher education compared with 20% of the wealthiest, according to a 2017 survey of 76 countries. The proportion of youth enrolled also ranges from less than 10% in sub-Saharan Africa to almost 80% in Europe and North America.

New opportunities, new challenges

Rapid progress in information and communication technology has also greatly shaped opportunities in higher education. Continuous advances in digital technologies, social media, and mobile devices, are giving learners better access to knowledge and educational content. More recently, artificial intelligence for teaching and learning, virtual augmented reality, simulations, and serious games have further widened the opportunities arising from technology-enabled learning. New interactive pedagogies based on e-learning have also proven their effectiveness.

However, the digital divide has come into sharp focus once again, as COVID-19 disrupted higher education in unprecedented ways. As face-to-face learning stopped in more than 190 countries, many institutions were able to rapidly shift to online learning. However, the limitations were quickly revealed in low-income countries, home to 96% of the 2.9 billion people who have never used the internet. For many disadvantaged students, the move to online learning has diminished prospects for accessing higher education.

Yet, these challenges are occurring in tandem with higher education rising on international development agendas over the past 25 years. In the 1990s, under the Education for All movement, the international community was focused on basic education, and then during the 2000s attention shifted to primary education under the Millennium Development Goals. In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), brought higher education back to the international education agenda, recognizing its importance for all SDGs, and in particular its contribution to SDG-4 on equitable and quality education systems.

UNESCO’s World Higher Education Conference: Equitable access is a growing priority

UNESCO, being the only United Nations’ agency that has a mandate for higher education, convened two world conferences for the sector in 1998 and 2009. The first conference called upon Member States to respond to emerging challenges in higher education and by undertaking vast reforms to address them with urgency and relevance. A decade later, in 2009, the second World Conference demonstrated a commitment by all stakeholders to recognize higher education as a public good to advance research, innovation, and creativity, and as a major force in building inclusive and diverse knowledge societies.

The forthcoming WHEC 2022 to be held in Barcelona from 18 to 20 May 2022 is entitled Reinventing Higher Education for a Sustainable Future. It will highlight the importance of higher education to respond to present global challenges, such as climate change, social inequalities, and conflict, while advocating that higher education opens further to a larger and more diverse student body, including disadvantaged groups.

The WHEC2022 will help to define and prepare a roadmap that is framed by the 2030 Agenda and that is responsive to the challenges faced by humanity and the planet.  The conference calls for ‘breaking away from the traditional models of higher education and opening doors to new, innovative, creative, and visionary conceptions that not only serve current agendas for sustainable development, but also pave the way for future learning communities that overcome barriers, speak to all and are inclusive of all lifelong learners.’

IIEP will be sharing knowledge at the WHEC

For the 2022 edition, IIEP-UNESCO will organize a roundtable to discuss findings from its recent research on flexible learning pathways (FLPs). This type of policy allows higher education systems to adapt to the needs of more diverse learners, offering increased learner choice and eliminating barriers to their access and progression through the system.

Drawing on the experiences of countries that have participated in this collaborative research, the research shows how FLPs are key to achieving the Education 2030 Agenda, which calls for articulated education systems with multiple entry and exit pathways, through the recognition of formal, non-formal and informal learning. The topic is therefore highly relevant for the present and future context of higher education.

IIEP will also participate in a roundtable on data and knowledge production and launch a joint Policy Paper with the UN Refugee Agency on refugees’ access to host countries higher education, bringing into focus policy directions to support the super-disadvantaged and remove barriers to learning.