“And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” – President JF Kennedy

On Tuesday 16 April 2024, the president of Montgomery College in Maryland cancelled an event which featured the screening of a documentary (The Occupation of the American Mind) analysing how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has influenced the discourse about Israeli policies in the American media, turning what was intended as an opportunity for dialogue and debate into a moment of censorship.

On Wednesday 17 April, the University of Southern California (USC) announced that it was rescinding its invitation to deliver the commencement address to the Muslim valedictorian chosen by the university for just this honour, citing safety concerns for the university community.

On Thursday 18 April, the Republican-led Congress Committee on Education and the Workforce grilled and criticised the British-American President of Columbia University, Minouche Shafik, for not doing enough to control antisemitism on campus.

Her conciliatory tone and her disclosure during her testimony of confidential information about Columbia professors under institutional investigation shocked defenders of academic freedom.

On Friday 19 April, perhaps to prove her willingness to abide by Congress’ expectations, Shafik called in the police to remove students who had planted tents on a Columbia campus lawn in protest of the ongoing Israeli assault in Gaza.

One hundred and seven students were arrested and detained for hours. The next day, Columbia University suspended them all. Similar police actions have been undertaken since on campuses across the country, including Emerson College, Emory University, NYU, the University of Texas, USC and Yale, to name but a few.

Images of a dark past

Riot police invading a university campus are images we are used to seeing in authoritarian regimes such as Afghanistan, Iran, or Myanmar, but not in the United States, at least not since the Vietnam War.

US universities turning against their own students evokes images of the dark past of the country before the abolition of the Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

It is still painful to remember the sobering experience of Autherine Lucy Foster, the first Black American female student admitted at the University of Alabama in 1956. After white students demonstrated violently against the university’s decision to admit a black student, the university reversed its position and expelled Foster.

Attacks against higher education have grown exponentially in the past two years in the United States, driven by the fundamentalist aversion to both science and the inclusion of traditionally underrepresented students that permeates today’s version of the Republican party.

I have observed with disbelief and sadness the multiple forms of backlash against US colleges and universities: state laws to defund diversity, equity and inclusion programmes, limits to institutional autonomy, restrictions on tenure, book banning, prohibition to teach gender studies and critical race theory, measures to undermine the independence of accreditation agencies and repeated attacks on academic freedom, as evidenced by the evolution of the Academic Freedom Index.

The weaponisation of antisemitism

In the past six months, accusations of antisemitism have been weaponised to accelerate the assault against the US higher education system.

In the same way that suspicion of being a communist was the pretext for eliminating free thinkers in academia during the McCarthy era, allegations of antisemitism were the excuse to get rid of Harvard University’s first female black president and are now systematically used to silence anyone denouncing the war crimes committed by the Israeli army in Gaza as collective reprisals after the monstrous onslaught of Hamas against Israeli civilians on 7 October 2023.

The American Association of University Professors has denounced restrictive legislations defining “antisemitism to include political criticism of the state of Israel”.

What values are US colleges and universities defending as they try to rein in peaceful student demonstrations? Was Shafik’s decision to call in the police against her own students the best solution? It clearly failed to bring a good resolution of the issues at hand and seems to have emboldened students at Columbia and other universities to step up their protests, and set a precedent for brutal police intervention on US campuses.

These young people are genuinely distressed by the massacres of children and women perpetuated in Gaza, the “humanitarian disaster inflicted on the 2.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip” (to quote the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari) and the collective punishment imposed by denying food to the population of Gaza, a policy that is strictly prohibited by Article 33 of the Geneva Convention.

Open to learning

While university leaders should not, under any circumstances, accept the violent behaviour of masked vandals (as happened at the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt) and must firmly denounce all forms of extremism, including attacks against Jewish students, Muslim students, Black students and LGBT students alike, they should be open to learning from the lessons of non-violent student protests of the past to find more effective ways of communicating, dialoguing and negotiating with the majority of students who protest in an earnest and peaceful way.

Sadly, restrictions to academic freedom are not limited to the United States, as documented by Scholars at Risk, which monitors the situation in 179 countries.

The 2023 update of the Academic Freedom Index report highlights China, India, Mexico, Russia and the United States as countries with significant deterioration of academic freedom.

Even in democratic nations, like France and Germany, censorship is on the rise at universities. Last week, after the president of Lille University cancelled a debate on Palestine, the French association of research-intensive universities (UDICE) reaffirmed that “universities must facilitate the confrontation of ideas and knowledge informed by research. Debating is inherent to the education of students, research, and the dissemination of knowledge in society. Imposing silence would be a betrayal of the very mission of universities”.

On 26 April, the acting head of Sciences Po, a prestigious institution of higher learning in France, called the police to dislodge students who were demonstrating peacefully.

In Germany in early April, Cologne University withdrew an invitation to Professor Nancy Fraser, a US Jewish philosopher who teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York City, because she had been critical of Israeli policies.

Institutions of higher learning have the responsibility to foster an inquisitive and open environment where diverse perspectives and opinions are encouraged and explored, rather than stifling meaningful dialogue and limiting students’ exposure to differing viewpoints.

Effective and empowering education is about providing students with safe spaces where they can think critically and engage with complex issues, even those that may be controversial or make them uncomfortable because they challenge their own beliefs.

Core values

Should universities remain neutral and refrain from taking positions about the issues and challenges faced by the societies they are expected to serve, or do they have a duty to uphold core values as part of their global common good mission, to use Professor Simon Marginson’s definition?

In 2017, Pierre de Maret (emeritus president of the Free University of Brussels) and I launched the Shanghai principles as a way of reminding university leaders of the social responsibility of their institutions of higher learning.

Echoing the philosophy of intellectual independence and the core values of academic freedom and institutional autonomy defended by the Magna Charta signed by 975 heads of universities from 94 countries (including 22 from the US), our Shanghai principles recognise social inclusion, scientific truth, ethical values, responsible research and global solidarity as the moral compass of universities.

Expressing deep concern about the prospects for academic freedom and freedom of expression at colleges and universities – in the US and internationally – may seem overtly alarmist, but history has shown repeatedly that it is much easier to undermine democracy than to re-establish it.

This is why I am always humbled when I think of Martin Niemöller, the German priest who, after initially embracing the racist ideology of the Nazi party when Hitler came to power in 1933, realised his errors and became the leader of a group of German clergymen opposed to the Nazi regime.

He was arrested in 1937 and spent eight years in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. After the war, he wrote the following poem to express his belated regrets (as reported by the British Holocaust Memorial Day Trust):

First, they came for the Communists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me,
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

* First published by University World News on 26 April 2024.

For several decades, Roma children have been systematically discriminated against and often segregated in special schools in many Eastern European countries. As a result, the pipeline of high school graduates qualified to enter higher education has been constrained. In Hungary, however, the creation of an NGO dedicated to the promotion of educational opportunities for Roma youths has been a game changer.

The University of Western Australia is a selective university in Perth, often perceived as out of reach for aspiring students from traditionally under-represented groups. To improve the integration of incoming students, the university recently shifted from a deficit model (the idea that responsibility for inequalities do not reside with the institution but with the individual) to a more inclusive approach which relies on comprehensive student support services.*

African universities are usually not considered major players in the world of science. Yet, the renowned scientific journal, Nature, has just published the results of a ground-breaking study conducted by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Rwanda that describes a new pooled method for identifying COVID-19 at low prevalence. AIMS has been successful in attracting female students to undertake postgraduate studies in mathematics.

These encouraging stories are but three examples out of the many innovative initiatives analysed in a new book, Transforming Lives, which illustrates the life-changing impact these programmes can have.

The 31 case studies presented in the book come from 21 countries or territories in seven regions of the world. The overwhelming majority of institutions analysed are public universities, ranging from elite universities in capital cities to more open access institutions in regional cities.

The book’s case studies point to three interesting developments in the range of equity target groups that higher education institutions seek to serve.

First, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of universities – notably in South America – have started to look at mental stress as a temporary disability that deserves special attention.

Second, Indian universities are using the term ‘trailblazer’ to describe first-in-their-family students who do well during their higher education studies and then go back to their community as role models.

Third, Australian universities now consider students from families that do not use English as their first language as an equity target group.

What triggers equity initiatives?

The case studies show a continuum between top-down and bottom-up processes, including activities mandated or promoted by government, initiatives launched by university leaders or coming from individual parts of the university, and initiatives promoted by external players.

The South Asia case studies illustrate how national and-or sub-national governments have mandated affirmative action and student aid interventions for designated target groups that all higher education institutions must implement.

The Australian and New Zealand governments influence universities through a combination of national targets and financial incentives.

The Irish government has clear equity targets that encourage universities to be proactive.

Scotland makes resources available to institutions interested in decolonising their curriculum.

Many case studies analyse initiatives that came primarily from a university leader or from dedicated individuals, especially in regions where national governments are not active in promoting the equity agenda.

One of the most emblematic examples in this respect comes from the University of Santiago in Chile, where Professor Francisco Gil dedicated his professional life to finding pioneering ways of supporting students from underprivileged families through outreach, remedial and affirmative action projects.

Finally, a few of the case studies illustrate how financial support offered by foreign foundations can have a significant impact when it comes to triggering worthwhile equity promotion initiatives at the institutional level.

The Mexico case study documents how the Ford Foundation’s Pathways to Higher Education programme has encouraged and supported universities interested in starting equity projects on behalf of under-represented Indigenous communities.

In Africa, the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program has been instrumental in allowing promising young people, especially talented women, to enrol in high-quality local institutions.

Drivers of success

The availability of external resources is crucial not only when it comes to triggering equity initiatives but also as a driver of success. External resources come essentially in the form of earmarked public funding, as was the case in Finland and Queensland, or in the form of grants from foreign donors.

Australia stands out as the one nation in the world that has provided the most substantial funding over a long period of time to promote equity.

While outreach programmes are an essential component of any effort to improve access to higher education, retention is higher when there is a special focus on the students’ experience during their first year of study at university.

Many of the case studies provide strong, holistic support to at-risk students during their first university year. Providing on-campus housing is also an important part of a positive learning and living environment for students from traditionally under-represented groups.

Multi-stakeholder cooperation through alliances with external partners is another important driver of success, as revealed by the Canadian, Finnish, Irish and US experiences. Involving the Indigenous community closely was key to success in Canada and the USA.

Embedding an equity initiative that started in one corner of a higher education institution as a core activity in the entire institution raises the chances of success and long-term sustainability. Making it a shared responsibility between dedicated support units and academic staff is important.

All these factors were clearly illustrated by cases as diverse as the affirmative action programme at Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil, the cooperative education scheme at the University of Limerick in Ireland and the activities in support of Indigenous students at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, for example.

Implementation challenges and mitigation measures

Any new initiative by a higher education institution is bound to encounter unexpected difficulties. Changes in leadership can bring setbacks to equity initiatives, as illustrated by the Kazakhstan case. Programmes imposed from above are more vulnerable than those that originate from within a university and are well embedded in the institutional fabric.

Universities can have a hard time implementing their equity programmes when there is a national mandate that is not sustained by sufficient public resources, as illustrated by the South Asian cases.

Several case studies confirmed the importance of having a good database to monitor progress and conducting surveys to assess the actual needs of students and the effectiveness of equity interventions. This helps to identify bottlenecks and take corrective measures in a timely fashion.

Australia and Brazil came out as the two countries with the most extensive data information system at the national level to orient and monitor equity promotion policies. Universities in several Western European countries – France and Germany, for instance – face the challenge of not being allowed to collect relevant data about students because of legal restrictions.

Another noteworthy finding is linked to the measurement of success. Progress measured such as successful graduation may not be sufficient because students from traditionally under-represented groups often find difficulties entering the labour market that graduates from well-off families do not encounter.

Prospects for sustainability and replicability

The most sustainable initiatives are those that are clearly aligned with the vision, mission and strategic plan of the university, that are fully embedded in the institutional culture and that benefit from a stable funding source that can keep the programme sustainable and even make it grow.

Working in close partnership with multiple stakeholders, both within and outside the institution, is also a strong factor in sustainability.

Several examples showed that other higher education institutions had adopted the good practices pioneered by the universities analysed in the book, notably in Germany, Ireland and Chile.

A string of pearls approach

Three success factors stand out clearly. First, no single measure is sufficient for promoting equity. The term ‘string of pearls’ aptly describes the combination of financial and non-monetary interventions necessary to address the needs of equity target groups. Second, abundant resources are essential to sustain and scale up equity initiatives. National authorities should provide public funding to support their equity agenda. At the institutional level, the diversification of funding sources can better protect universities from financial instability. Third, while many equity promotion initiatives may have been launched by visionary leaders, their embedding throughout institutions has depended on the sustained efforts of teams united around the conviction that students from under-represented groups are capable of great academic achievements.

*This post was first published as an article by University World News on 7 October 2023.

Despite the spectacular expansion that has occurred in many parts of the planet in the past 60 years, severe disparities persist in higher education.

A disproportionately high share of students enrolled in higher education still comes from wealthier segments of society. Structural inequality and disparities exist across groups and societies, often due to historical discriminatory norms around economic class, gender, minority status based on ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural characteristics and disabilities.

Even when they gain access, students from under-represented and traditionally excluded groups tend to have lower completion rates. They are often tracked into less prestigious higher education institutions and face reduced, lower-quality labour market opportunities as a result.

Around the world, many children face challenging circumstances beyond their own control due to discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, geographical origin, socio-economic background or other attributes, which drastically affect their opportunities to go to school, stay in school and complete secondary education.

At the tertiary level, young people encounter additional barriers reflecting the direct opportunity cost of studying, lack of social capital, insufficient academic preparation, low motivation and lack of access to information about their labour market prospects.

The need to achieve greater equity and inclusion in higher education responds to a strong social justice imperative, as reflected in target 4.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Measuring equity

Efforts to measure equity in higher education assume that the proportion of target equity groups should be equal to their share in the general population. In practice, however, the choice of indicators to measure disparities in higher education has been heavily influenced by the availability of data to analyse the situation of each equity group.

Household surveys available for 64 countries reveal large gaps in participation rates among income groups across all levels of enrolment, from the poorest nations with the lowest participation rates to countries with much higher average participation rates.

Gender balance in higher education has improved substantially in the past two decades. Today, women represent the majority of enrolment in higher education in most countries, except for South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, women represent only 42.3% of all students. In South Asia, their proportion is 47%.

However, significant gender inequalities persist in access to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) institutions and programmes. Data from 18 countries across the world show the rate of female graduates in STEM varying from a low of 11% in Switzerland to a high of 47% in Argentina.

Less data is available to assess differences in access to higher education across ethnic, racial or religious minorities. Where it exists, data reveal vast disparities. For instance, in South Africa, despite the increase in overall enrolment in higher education, less than one in five black South Africans access it, compared to 55% among whites.

Similarly, in Vietnam, enrolment rates of the dominant Kinh/Hoa group are four times higher than those of ethnic minorities living in remote parts of the country. Among the world’s more than 82 million refugees, the UNHCR estimates that only around 5% of the relevant age cohort have access to tertiary education, whereas comparative enrolment figures for primary and secondary education are 68% and 34%, respectively.

People with disabilities, often called the ‘invisible minority’, are also widely under-represented in higher education. In Thailand, for example, less than 1% of youths with disabilities have access to higher education. In South Africa, they represent 0.6% of the total student enrolment compared to an estimated disability prevalence of 3.5% within the corresponding age group.

High degrees of intersection

Furthermore, it is important to note high degrees of intersection among these dimensions as disparities usually have an overlapping and cumulative effect across equity groups. Gender discrimination tends to impact girls from low-income groups more prominently.

For example, in Peru and Mexico, where female enrolment is lower than male enrolment – contrary to the general trend in Latin America – the difference between low-income and high-income students is striking.

In Peru, the enrolment rates of girls from the poorest and richest groups are 13.3% and 24.9%, respectively; in Mexico, they are 9.1% and 37.4%. Several studies have documented how poverty, ethnicity and rurality are also closely linked in North and South America, as well as in Australia and New Zealand.

Similarly, poverty amplifies the obstacles encountered by people with disabilities; girls with disabilities having a lower probability of entering higher education or completing a degree than boys with disabilities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions and students experienced unprecedented disruption and new challenges. Severe reductions in financial resources, the digital gap and the lack of preparation of instructors exacerbated disparities in access and success, and created emotional and social distress, especially among vulnerable students.

Countries and institutions must therefore accelerate efforts to remove barriers to quality higher education for all learners from under-represented groups.

Equity promotion policies

The higher education ecosystem includes the following key elements specifically influencing the equity situation and results in any country: admissions policies; pathways and bridges; a quality assurance framework; government subsidies for institutions and students; tuition fees; and financial aid. The state can define policies and measures to improve equity in higher education along all these dimensions.

Within higher education institutions, several measures can help boost the access and success of students from various equity groups: outreach activities; targeted admission policies; retention programmes; and additional financial aid.

To be effective, equity promotion policies must be defined in a comprehensive way, taking both financial and non-monetary aspects into consideration, coordinating actions at the national and institutional levels in a complementary manner, and putting as much emphasis on completion as on access, which has traditionally received more attention.

A long-term view is key to guaranteeing continuity and consistency in effective equity promotion policies, which require well-established information systems to identify all equity groups, measure equity gaps and assess progress in terms of access and graduation.

Seventy years ago, the economic historian RH Tawney wrote about equality of opportunity as being “the impertinent courtesy of an invitation offered to unwelcome guests, in the certainty that circumstances will prevent them from accepting it”.

Today, equity in access and success at the higher education level cannot be regarded any more as a luxury or an afterthought. The need to achieve greater inclusion in higher education responds to a strong social justice imperative. Higher education systems in which opportunities are equally distributed are the basis for sustainable development and the construction of fair and democratic societies.

* This post was originally published by University World News.

Phil G. Altbach, Hans de Witt, and Jamil Salmi

In the context of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current brutal invasion and war on Ukraine, it is difficult, but essential, to consider the present and future of higher education and scientific relations between Russia and the rest of the world.

While formal education and research collaboration and other academic relations with official representatives and organisations affiliated with the Russian government should be paused, we should start thinking about a longer-term perspective as well.

Over the past decades, the three of us have had regular contact with Russian higher education, including participation in, and advice to, government-funded initiatives. We have always done so with a critical eye and in the interest of international academic collaboration. The primary focus of our activities has been to work closely with students and scholars, providing them, and ourselves, with an opportunity for cooperation that was as autonomous as possible from political interference.

In the current context, it is clear that participation in government-controlled and -funded activities with Russia needs to be stopped immediately and that solidarity and support must be primarily focused on Ukraine, especially in light of the shameful declaration of support for the war published by the Russian Union of Rectors.

But what about the long term?

Recent calls by several United States politicians to expel all Russian students and scholars currently in the United States are completely counterproductive. We have witnessed the great support given by Russian immigrants, in particular students and scholars, to the Ukrainian people, as well as their protests against the Putin regime.

We understand and support the cancelling of formal academic and research relations with Russia by authorities in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

At the same time, we agree with the firm but nuanced statement of the European University Association (EUA) on the importance of academic and research engagement with Russia.

While suspending the membership of the 12 institutions which signed the support letter to Putin, the EUA emphasises the importance of supporting Russian academics who protest against the Putin regime, often at great personal risk of being arrested or fired, and the need to keep communication channels open with these individuals.

For the most part, Russian academics and scientists are not directly involved with the invasion of Ukraine and many reports indicate widespread opposition to the war in universities.

A second Cold War

There are many reasons why continued engagement with universities and relevant research organisations is important in the long run, in particular for the students and scholars who are depending on them. In that respect, it can be useful to reflect on academic relations during the Cold War between 1945 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and learn from previous experience.

During that period, even in times of significant political tension, academic and scientific relations continued throughout – although on a modest scale and with considerable government supervision on both sides.

Back then, two quite distinct scientific systems coexisted, with only modest linkages between them. The Soviet system included the satellite countries of Eastern Europe and, until 1960, China. On the Soviet side, academe was ‘weaponised’ to serve national goals – with many scholarships provided to students from countries favourable to the Soviet Union.

On the other side, the Fulbright Program and many other initiatives offered opportunities for study and research in Western countries. The ‘academic cold war’ was global in scale. But it should be kept in mind that resistance to developing academic contacts with the other system came mainly from the Soviet side and that there were Soviet institutions and individual academics doing their best to adhere to integrity and academic freedom.

A second Cold War is quite likely to happen as a result of the Ukraine war, with implications for universities and for research. But it will probably be quite different from the previous one: Russia has been integrated into global higher education for three decades; research and scholarship have become globalised. Moreover, Russia no longer has a strong base of satellite countries and, even in the Russian sphere, as in Belarus, there is strong opposition to authoritarian rule.

It is not clear whether China will side with Russia in this new Cold War or if either country will seek to cut itself off from global science. There has been some academic and scientific decoupling of China in the past year – stimulated in part by the United States, but also coming from China itself. While the details are still unclear, this second Cold War will definitely have implications.

Strategies for the future

As stated above, in the current situation, our academic partners in Ukraine should be our absolute priority and receive our full support; all formal relations with Russian government programmes for collaboration and exchange should be cancelled, and formal relations with Russian institutions should be frozen as well.

At the same time, it is important to maintain our professional contacts with the Russian academic community outside and inside the country. More than ever, they need our support and understanding of the difficult circumstances in which they have to operate under a dictatorial and ruthless regime.

What the future will bring for academic cooperation and exchange with Russia cannot be foreseen at this stage and will require constant monitoring. But complete academic isolation will be counterproductive in the short and long run.

The academic boycott against the apartheid regime in South Africa has taught us that such a boycott can be effective as part of a broader social, economic and cultural struggle, but continued active interaction with individuals who were critical of the regime in the academic community of South Africa was mutually beneficial.

In this new, tragic and uncharted academic and scientific environment, we must be firm in condemning the institutions and academic leaders supporting the war, but keep the door open for contact and perhaps collaboration with those who share common values of integrity, mutual understanding and academic freedom.

This blog originally appeared as an article in University World News on 13 March 2022. Philip G Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow, and Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), Boston College, United States. Jamil Salmi is professor emeritus of higher education policy at Diego Portales University, Chile, and research fellow of CIHE.

This week, the world of education lost one of its finest champions: Gwang-Jo Kim.   Korean by birth, citizen of the world by choice, Gwang-Jo was an educator with a passion.   He believed that schools should be happy places where children would learn to live with tolerance and peace. Gwang-Jo’s last position as director of the UNESCO regional office for Asia and the Pacific gave him an effective platform to fight tirelessly on behalf of equal opportunities in education at all levels and promote his dreams of social justice and peaceful coexistence.

I met Gwang-Jo seventeen years ago, when he worked at the World Bank on a two-year secondment from the Korean Ministry of Education. Gwang-Jo’s knowledge and experience were so rich and relevant that he was invited to stay on for a third year. I remember how all the people he worked with in developing countries appreciated his intellectual generosity and his modesty in sharing his knowledge. Gwang-Jo was wise, funny and curious. Everyone was keen to benefit from his advice and learn from his experience. And his love of music was catchy. I remember how, during a visit to Colombia, he astonished everyone by singing, in Spanish, a popular Latin American song. As many people were finding it difficult to pronounce his Korean name, he told them in his usual down-to-earth manner “just call me Juancho!”

After the World Bank, Gwang-Jo became vice-minister of education in his country. But no matter how successful he was in his professional life, moving from government to the top regional UNESCO position, he always remained the same committed professional and kind friend. He was also the most generous host, as many of us experienced in Seoul and Bangkok. I was privileged to accompany him on a visit to his native town, Gyeongju, where we shared the best seafood meal I ever ate and watched the sun rise from the sea in a moving moment of silent sharing.

I shall miss you, Gwang-Jo, my colleague for a few years and my friend forever.  You are an inspiration to all of us who knew you.

Professor Fernando Reimers wrote a beautiful testimony about Gwang-Jo’s life and impact, which I reproduce below with his permission. No one could have described better how Gwang-Jo’s gentleness, generosity and humility touched the heart and mind of everyone he met.

Post by Fernando Reimers – Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education Harvard Graduate School of Education

I met Gwang-Jo Kim when we were both students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, more than three decades ago. I learned a great deal from his work ethic, his extraordinary determination and focus on his studies, and from his intellect. We were brought together by our shared broken English, our shared doctoral advisor, Professor Russell Davis, the many courses we took together, and the fact that we both came from far away, were living extremely frugally out of necessity more than disposition, and did a number of poorly paid student jobs, such as painting student dorms, to pay our bills. Gwang Jo’s hopeful spirit and humor lifted me up on more than one occasion from the pressing burden of having to write many research papers in a language that was very much foreign to us then, during the short days of winter, with little money in our pockets. Our conversations as we painted those rooms or crossed paths in the library helped to keep me focused on the long term, on the better world we were going to build as a result of our efforts to advance educational opportunity. Amidst those demands and pressures we lived as graduate students, Gwang-Jo made time to be with his family by sleeping few hours.

Over the last three decades I had the pleasure of seeing Gwang-Jo pursue an extraordinarily successful career in international development, and achieve the dreams he had discussed as we painted the student rooms in the Cronkhite Graduate Center at Harvard. He became a deputy secretary of education of South Korea, a senior education official at the World Bank, and eventually Director of UNESCO’s office for Asia and the Pacific. These were remarkable accomplishments for a man who had come from the most humble beginnings, accomplishments he had earned purely as a result of talent and effort. But to Gwang Jo, GJ as his colleagues in Unesco Bangkok called him, these accomplishments were important only because they provided him a platform from which to serve others, especially children. It was a joy to watch his sophistication in engaging ministers, premiers, members of royalty, and his colleagues in the international development community, and in getting them to collaborate to produce valuable results for the education of children.

Gwang-Jo Kim represented the best of UNESCO in his commitment to the enduring mission of the organization: the advancement of human rights and the promotion of peace and sustainability through education. His capacity for innovation and his imagination to bring people together on behalf of bigger purposes were inspiring, to his staff, to me and to my students, as was his resiliency and determination to see projects through until they achieved results.

With grace, Gwang-Jo steered UNESCO towards meaningful and relevant work even as financial resources dwindled. He brought together often all ministers of education of Asia and the Pacific to examine how to create jobs for youth, how to promote entrepreneurship, how to build a culture of innovation. He was passionate about helping to rebuild education in regions in conflict, and had a firm belief in the power of schools to help societies heal from the wounds of violence. In his last years, he was focused on finding ways to work with governments so they could support public schools to more effectively promote socio-emotional development and happiness.

Gwang-Jo led one of the jewels of UNESCO with great humility. At gatherings of Ministers of Education, I saw him bring his guitar, and conclude a full day of meaningful and productive discussions, with a performance in which he sang songs in several languages. He had learned to play the guitar, and to fly kytes, while serving as Director of UNESCO in Bangkok. He explained it helped him put life in perspective and keep balance. He advised me to pick up a hobby years ago, as I visited him and his wife in their apartment in Bangkok; with the demeanor of an older brother he explained that a hobby would help me be ready for the changes life would bring as I aged. The next time I saw him, when he took a detour on a trip to the UN to come speak to my students at Harvard, I showed him a garden I had started and he seemed pleased I had followed his advice.

At our last conversation in person, during a visit I paid him in Thailand, he shared plans he was just sketching for life after retiring from UNESCO, to return to the village of his roots, perhaps to teach, to continue to give of himself to the children, to educate the next generation so we could have a better world. Our last exchange, three weeks ago, was over an innovation award he had helped establish to recognize programs to strengthen the capacities of teachers in Asia. He confirmed he would be retiring at the end of August, as he had planned to do some time ago. ‘I will soon update you about my retired life.’ he wrote. I was hopeful we could persuade him to come and do some teaching to our students, as I know how good he would have been to them.

Gwang-Jo made UNESCO a much better institution than he found it, during a time of severe financial constrains and complicated geo-politics. He helped advance the education of children through his service to the government of his country and as an international development leader, and he did it with distinction and effectiveness. He did more than his share to improve the world, with the same humble, generous and humorous spirit that I remember from our days as graduate students at Harvard, over three decades ago. He reached great heights in his profession while never forgetting his humble roots.

My heart goes out to his widow and his two sons, to his colleagues and friends. I know he will always be with us in our memories.

Thank you Gwang-Jo, for all you taught me and so many others, for your example, for your leadership, for your love and relentless work for Peace.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post

Higher education leaders in England, France and Italy often take pride in claiming that their country is the seat of the oldest university in the modern world.  Indeed, Oxford University was set up in 1167, the Sorbonne was created in 1160, and the University of Bologna began to operate in 1088.  But historians have established that, in reality, the oldest university still functioning in modern times is the Qarawyyin in Fes, Morocco, which started as an institution of learning as early as 859.  The Arab world can also take pride in the contribution of other prestigious universities, such as Ez-Zeituna in Tunis, Al-Nizamiyya in Iraq or Al Azhar in Egypt.  More recently, the University of Cairo was hailed as the lighthouse of the Arab intelligentsia for many decades during the twentieth century.

Today, however, the higher education systems of the Arab world face important challenges.  While most countries in the region have witnessed a rapid growth in the number of universities and seen a tremendous increase in student numbers, quality and relevance are sources of serious concern.  Lack of selection and insufficient budgetary resources have resulted, in many cases, in situations of over-crowding and inadequate facilities.  The University of Cairo has more than 250,000 students.  After a recent merger, the University of Rabat enrolls close to 100,000 students.  Many universities in the region operate with a traditional curriculum and outdated pedagogical practices, resulting in high dropout rates—sometimes half of an entire student generation—.  According to Al-Fanar Media, more than half of Jordanian universities recently failed a national proficiency exam held by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.  Finding a job remains a difficult adventure for large numbers of graduates throughout the region.  In fact, graduate unemployment was one of the triggers of the Arab spring, most notably in Tunisia.

In short, the achievements of the Arab higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the economic weight and the long scholarly tradition of these countries.  Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Arab systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, they suffer from relatively high levels of graduate unemployment, and are characterized by inadequate governance arrangements.  Many public universities in the Arab region are driven by interest groups who are resistant to change, they suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems.  Some universities are governed by large scientific councils with close to 100 members, which makes it difficult if not impossible to take innovative initiatives.

The Arab world represents 5.8% percent of the world population and produces 4.5% percent of the planet’s GDP, but its universities account for only 0.08% percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking.  The poor results of a large country like Egypt—the 15th most populated nation of the world—are striking in contrast to the impressive performance of a small country such as the Netherlands, which places four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking.  The tiny territory of Hong Kong has more universities in the Shanghai ranking than all Arab countries considered together.

At the same time, it is fair to acknowledge several positive developments in the region.  Saudi Arabia, in particular, stands out for the rapid progress of its top universities in recent years.  Four Saudi universities are present among the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, two of them appearing in the 150 to 200 group.  It is also the only Arab country included among the top fifty higher education systems ranked by the international consortium Universitas 21 in the annual assessment prepared on its behalf by the University of Melbourne.  Saudi Arabia was ranked number 28 in 2015, up two spots compared to 2014.  Also, in countries as diverse as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, a few private universities have emerged as centers of innovative curricular and pedagogical practices.  KAUST, the youngest public university established in Saudi Arabia, is on its way to becoming rapidly a scientific powerhouse.  But these outstanding examples remain the exception, not the rule.

If universities in the Arab world are to see better days, two key developments are necessary.  First, following the recent examples of a few Gulf States, each nation ought to formulate a comprehensive and audacious vision of the future role of higher education, and translate it into a strategic plan spelling out the concrete reforms, investments and actions needed to implement the vision.  Fostering an institutionally differentiated system, composed not only of research-intensive universities but also good quality teaching universities and community colleges with a professional focus, is important to offer relevant opportunities to the rapidly growing youth population of these countries, and to produce the range of professionals and technicians that the economy needs.  In that context, the Northern African and Middle Eastern countries whose public universities are starved for resources must significantly increase public investment in higher education and research.

Second, the higher education systems in the Arab world need to build their capacity to design and implement deep reforms in a consensual mode, in order to modernize governance structures and processes overall, allowing for increased institutional autonomy and full academic freedom.  To be successful, these reforms must be designed and implemented in a spirit of transparency and objectivity, on the basis of a realistic assessment of existing needs, gaps, strengths and weaknesses.  It would make such a difference if the Arab countries would start showing as much enthusiasm for the transformation and modernization of their higher education systems as for the results of their national soccer teams on their way to the next World Cup qualifier match!

First published by WISE ed.review.  Also available in Arabic.

Seen from an international perspective, the higher education systems of the Ibero-American countries present fascinating contrasts.  They can take pride in the very rapid enrollment increases in recent years and significant efforts to improve the quality of learning and research in a growing number of universities.  Several countries, especially in Latin America, demonstrate a high degree of institutional differentiation with a wide range of public and private universities and non-university tertiary institutions—from technical institutes to technology-focused universities, from small professional schools to large research universities.

Furthermore, the Latin American higher education systems boast some innovative aspects linked to policies to promote equity, the assessment of learning outcomes, and the monitoring of graduates in the labor market, something found in only a few countries worldwide.  Following the example of ICETEX in Colombia—the first student loan agency in the world— several countries now rely on this mechanism to improve opportunities for students from disadvantaged groups, most significantly in Brazil, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.  Other initiatives to make high quality universities more inclusive are also worth mentioning, such as the affirmative action program at UNICAMP in Brazil, bridge schemes to bring talented low income high school graduates into public universities in Chile, and the Colombian private university, Uniminuto, established with the mission of offering a high quality education to students from the most marginalized urban and rural socioeconomic sectors.  Brazil and Colombia are among the few developing countries with a national assessment system to measure student learning outcomes.  Finally, Chile and Colombia have been pioneers in the development of labor market observatories—Mi Futuro and Graduados Colombia, respectively—to follow the professional trajectories of university graduates.

In spite of these positive features, the achievements of the Ibero-American higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the current economic heft or the long scholarly tradition of these countries.  Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Ibero-American systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, suffer from relatively lower levels of public funding, and are characterized by inadequate governance.

Research funding in Latin America ranges from 0.3 to 1 percent of GDP, while the Nordic countries invest between 3 and 4 percent of their GDP.  In terms of governance, universities in the Ibero-American region, especially the public ones, are subject to the influence of interest groups resistant to change, suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems.  What are the concrete results of these differences?

Latin America represents 8.5 percent of the world population and produces 8.7 percent of the planet’s GDP, while its universities account for only 2.2 percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, less than 1.5 percent of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education ranking, and 2.6 percent of the top 500 universities in the Leiden ranking that focuses on publications and their impact.  The poor performance of large countries such as Brazil and Mexico—the sixth and tenth economies of the world, respectively—is particularly striking in contrast with the impressive results of smaller countries like the Netherlands, that has four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking, or Israel with three universities. The tiny territory of Hong Kong places as many universities in the Shanghai ranking as the Brazilian giant!

In Europe, the two Ibero-American countries, Spain and Portugal, also fail to achieve good outcomes.  A recent study commissioned by the Spanish government and undertaken by a group of distinguished academics deplores the absence of Spanish universities of excellence and the low scientific production of the country.  Not one Spanish or Portuguese university appears among the top 200 in the Shanghai ranking, in contrast with large European countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, and even smaller nations like Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.

For the situation to change for the better in the Ibero-American countries, two key factors appear to be missing.  First, each of these countries needs to elaborate a comprehensive and audacious national vision of the future role of higher education, translating that vision into a strategic plan with adequate investment and spelling out the concrete reforms and actions needed for its implementation.

Second, Ibero-American nations need to build their capacity to design and implement deep and consensual reforms with significant increases in public spending for higher education and research while modernizing governance structures and administrative processes.  To be successful, these reforms must be designed and accepted as long-term state policies, rather than prepared and identified as the proposal of a specific government and limited by the typically short electoral horizon.  It would make such a difference if the Ibero-American countries would show as much enthusiasm for the transformation of their higher education system as for the results of their national soccer teams!

This blog entry was first published by Inside Higher Education on 11 January 2015

The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore.

Ferdinand Magellan (1520)

 For several decades, traditional human capital analysis challenged the need for public support of higher education on the grounds that graduates captured important private benefits—notably higher salaries and lower unemployment—that should not be subsidized by taxpayers.  Many multilateral and bilateral donor agencies, influenced by this argument, focused their support on basic education rather than investing in the expansion and improvement of higher education systems in developing countries.

In the 1990s, however, a growing body of research demonstrated the need to go beyond rate-of-return analysis to measure the value of higher education as an important pillar of sustainable development.  By focusing primarily on the private returns of government spending, rate-of-return analysis fails to capture broad social benefits accruing to society, that are important to recognize and measure.  These include research externalities, entrepreneurship, job creation, good economic and political governance, and the positive effects that a highly educated cadre of workers has on a nation’s health and social fabric.

Building on these findings, the path breaking 2000 report entitled Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise called for scaling up investment in higher education and research, as a key pillar to equip developing countries with the knowledge and qualified manpower needed to fight poverty and accelerate economic growth.  Written by a distinguished group of independent experts with financial support from several donor agencies, the report had an important impact at three levels.  First, it helped turn around donor policies in favor of greater attention to higher education in partner countries.  Second, it unleashed many positive reform initiatives in the developing countries themselves.  Third it paved the way for increased South-South networking and collaborative activities.

Almost fifteen years later, the world of higher education has changed significantly.  Developing countries have seen tremendous enrollment growth, especially in the private sector.  In Europe, the Bologna process has led to the creation of a “higher education space” facilitating the circulation of students and academics.  Asian nations have been at the forefront of efforts to place higher education at the center of their economic development strategies.

Higher education finds itself at another crossroad today, as national systems seem to be pulled in several directions by a combination of factors bringing about both opportunities and challenges at the same time.  The forces exercising new pressures on higher education can be divided into three groups: crisis factors, stimulation factors, and rupture factors.

The crisis factors are the direct results of the economic and financial crisis that started in 2008.  Many governments have significantly cut their higher education budget while, at the same time, households have fewer resources to allocate to education expenditures.  Furthermore, in many countries, the slowing down of the economy has led to rising graduate unemployment.

Compounding these elements of crisis are rupture factors such as those pointed out in a 2013 report proposing the image of “an avalanche” to describe the radical changes affecting how higher education institutions will be conducting their teaching and research activities in the future.  Among these rupture factors are (i) technological innovations such as flipped classrooms and other strategies for more interactive learning, (ii) mass online open courses (MOOCS) reaching hundred of thousands of students all over the world, (iii) increased competition from for-profit and corporate universities that provide professional qualifications closely linked to labor market needs, and (iv) new accountability modalities like the global rankings, that allow for different kinds of comparisons of the performance of universities across all continents.

Finally, higher education institutions are exposed to stimulation factors in the few countries that, notwithstanding the financial crisis, have continued to give priority to the development of their knowledge economy by protecting their higher education budget.  Several governments have even launched “excellence initiatives” translating into a large influx of additional resources for their nation’s leading universities—for example China, Denmark, France, Germany, Russia and South Korea—, often under the influence of the global rankings.

How these three sets of factors play out in each country determines the new “perils” and “promises” likely to shape the development of higher education in the years to come.


This article was first published in the Bulletin (Issue 182, July 2014), the magazine of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).


Guest blogger Laura Howard, EAIE vice-president

At the October 2013 Conference of the Americas on internationalization (CAIE), the audience listening to the plenary moderated by Francisco Marmolejo, Coordinator of Higher Education at the World Bank, was intrigued when Jamil Salmi, specialist in higher education, began his answer to the question of why Latin American universities are not well represented in rankings by talking about football.

So what is the connection?

Salmi pointed out that the world’s top football teams have international players. Many also have international coaches or managers (Ancelotti in Real Madrid, Mourinho in Chelsea), even in the case of the national selection of some countries (Capello as the England coach). In their search for the best players, and for the right trainer, they look beyond their own backyard.

In Latin American universities, however, it is seldom the case that a university is led by a rector/president from another country – in some cases it is even expressly prohibited by law. This reflects a mindset that does not include a global perspective and therefore does not consider international candidates. It asks for a change of attitude, the willingness to look beyond national borders in the search for quality and excellence, to find the person with the right skill set. And this need is not limited to Latin America. This is not to say, by any means, that excellent candidates cannot be found on home ground. However, a university that appoints a rector from another country is giving a clear signal that it is embracing internationalisation, going beyond the search for international students and academic staff right to the institution’s strategic centre, preparing itself internally for change. This comment brought to mind two thoughts:

The International Relations Office: the Messi and the Torres of the university

The first one concerns an issue that has been discussed by many EAIE members over the years. The International Relations Offices of our universities are often home to international staff, usually in a much higher percentage than in other areas of university administration and management. It would be interesting to explore and attempt to measure the specific contribution made by these professionals to the internationalisation process of their universities. They are the international players in our teams: the Messi and the Torres. And the added value they provide can serve as an example, as many of their skills would be transferrable to other aspects of university administration in an institution that embraces comprehensive internationalisation.

Mobility in football vs. higher education

The second concerns another advantage enjoyed by football teams – the ease with which international players can cross borders. Entry visas do not appear to be an issue when a team wants to sign up a new international player; they often enjoy special fiscal privileges and in some cases even citizenship to the country which wants them on their team is granted. Yet in the field of education, most higher education institutions struggle to get the necessary support for a coherent inter-ministerial policy which facilitates the entry of international students and staff – who as well as being a source of finance can contribute to the internationalisation process, and can help to improve the institution’s place in the rankings.

It seems that the internationalisation of football is of greater strategic importance in many countries than the internationalisation of higher education. Lots of food for thought. What is the situation in your country?

PS.  Update from Jamil Salmi: at the 2014 soccer world cup in Brazil, half of the 32 competing teams have a foreign coach…

PS2. This blog was first posted on the EAIE website on 28 October 2013.