How six decades of solid research added value to higher education policy

05 September 2023



Originally published by University World News

This year, the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO) marks six decades of developing capacities in educational planning and management in UNESCO member states worldwide. We can trace its history through several key research programmes that have helped shape higher education, from its burgeoning importance in the post-independence era to today’s calls for greater flexibility and student choice.

IIEP-UNESCO was founded in 1963 at a time when many countries in the Global South were gaining independence. This was also an era when countries focused their efforts on developing advanced human resources to foster strong public administrations for the benefit of wider society.

The 1960s: Higher education takes off

Many countries in the 1960s were focused on creating a national university and in response IIEP developed its first international research programme, Planning the development of universities, which ran from 1966 to 1974. The project collected data through a survey and international university case studies on how to plan for improved access to university and employment of graduates, the teaching profession and research work, among other areas.

Using data from the case studies, it offered practical knowledge on how to plan for the creation of new universities.

The 1970s and ’80s: Higher education and employment

During the mid-1970s, higher education graduate unemployment had become a major concern in many countries. In response, IIEP launched new research on higher education and employment.

From 1978 to 1989, IIEP worked with 21 countries to assess the dynamics of higher education and employment. The project was designed to relate the development of higher education in various countries (both developing and developed) to the changing needs of the labour market in order to improve educational planning and thus reduce the mismatch between the training offered and the skills that were in demand.

The research not only created an international knowledge base on the relationship of higher education and employment, but it supported improved planning for higher education in the selected countries. It also provided the foundation for intensive training courses led by IIEP within countries and at IIEP itself on the higher education-employment relationship.

The 1990s: Management effectiveness and efficiency

During the late 1980s, and influenced by the ideas relating to New Public Management, the efficiency of higher education institutions was questioned in many countries. In response, IIEP launched research on institutional management in higher education in 1991. The project focused on how to improve the management of resources in terms of finance, staff, buildings and equipment.

Mainly through international case studies, the research identified methods, approaches and good practice to inspire innovative management approaches in higher education institutions.

The research led to a flagship publication, Innovations in University Management, and a series of 10 training modules, which were used in numerous regional, sub-regional and national training programmes.

The 2000s: Quality and governance

Starting in 2004, IIEP increasingly focused on how to improve the governance of higher education systems. At a time when UNESCO member states faced the privatisation of their higher education sectors, a paramount topic became quality assurance systems, but also governance reforms in higher education.

This topic was one on which IIEP worked in three sub-regions, producing 15 case studies which take stock of the effects of governance reforms in a range of different countries.

IIEP also set up a research programme to explore methodological and organisational options in quality assurance systems and their effectiveness in different contexts, with the idea of supporting countries to make better informed and more contextualised decisions.

After an exploratory research phase, the research supported the creation of a five-module training course, options in external quality assurance, which was translated into French, Chinese and Armenian.

From 2005 to 2016, through a series of online training programmes organised at the sub-regional level, IIEP trained more than 500 quality assurance officials in Africa, Asia, the Arab region and Eastern Europe, thereby supporting the creation and development of quality assurance agencies around the world.

In 2014, as a complement to the research on external quality assurance, IIEP shifted to the topic of innovative options in internal quality assurance conducted by higher education institutions themselves.

This research was inspired by the fact that internal quality assurance had become a major topic of concern, especially in the developing world amid a quality crisis within the context of rapidly increasing enrolments and stagnating financial resources.

This resulted in another flagship publication, Internal Quality Assurance: Enhancing higher education quality and graduate employability, and a training programme, which was deployed in both sub-regional and national groupings of universities.

Giving today’s diverse students more study options

More recently, rigid higher education systems were called into question over concerns that an increasingly diverse student body is not being offered enough student choice. Within this context, IIEP’s most recent research has been focusing on flexible learning pathways in higher education and in particular the effectiveness of policies and practices that give students with different needs more options to enter, progress in and complete higher education.

The research covered a stocktaking of policies and practices based on a literature analysis, an international survey and eight in-depth country case studies, including an assessment of how policies are implemented at the level of higher education institutions.

A flagship publication, SDG-4: Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education – From policy to practice, was published, offering a knowledge base of good practice and lessons on how to move flexible learning pathways from policy to practice. The research has clearly influenced policy change in the eight case countries and it is hoped that the wealth of knowledge produced will inspire other countries to follow suit.

The above summary of higher education research conducted by IIEP shows the tight links between the institute’s research and the changing policy priorities of UNESCO member states over the decades.

It also shows that IIEP’s research in higher education is always about on-the-ground realities, exploring innovative ideas and good practice that can inspire other countries, while also going deeper to analyse the effectiveness of different policy options. The systematic use of research results for the development of training programmes is another unique feature.

In this way, IIEP disseminates the knowledge gained from its research directly to its users to establish a powerful linkage with decision-making and practice.