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In May 2022, the world of higher education met for the first UNESCO World Higher Education Conference in over a decade. Here, after returning from the event in Barcelona, EUA’s Thomas Jørgensen recaps several key takeaways and reflects on what we in Europe can both contribute to and learn from these discussions of a worldwide scope.

The world of higher education met in Barcelona from 18-20 May 2022. For only the third time, UNESCO hosted its World Higher Education Conference (WHEC), bringing stakeholders from around the world together for discussions as well as publishing its Roadmap for higher education in 2030. Although UNESCO’s direct influence on European higher education is limited, the event provided an opportunity to take stock of what the world of universities is talking about, and where Europe can contribute or learn. From both the roadmap and discussions at the conference, a number of themes stood out:

Access to higher education remains a major topic around the world. For UNESCO, it is vital to stress that education is a human right throughout the system from primary to tertiary education. In a global perspective, higher education is still mostly accessible to privileged groups. Refugees are particularly vulnerable, a non-negligible fact with over 84 million people currently displaced across the globe. In many countries, talk of the right to higher education and higher education as a common good stands in contrast to large numbers of for-profit institutions and low public funding.

How is Europe doing? In Europe, the last decade’s goal of 40% of 30-24 years-olds attaining a higher education degree has largely been met by publicly funded higher education. However, this does not mean that all is well. EUA’s INVITED project showed that universities across the continent are engaged in furthering student diversity. However, the project also found that the concept of diversity and inclusion varies according to the cultural context; this is difficult in Europe and will not be easier as a global dialogue.

Sustainable development is the most important global agenda and a goal that bridges continents. It brings together the higher education community through a common aspiration. Most would agree that education and research are central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and that each goal - for example, the right to education - is important in and of itself. That said, there is a tendency to become almost overly instrumental when discussing universities in this context. One speaker at the WHEC stated that “We should measure what we’re good for, not at”. However, it is at times difficult to differentiate between when universities are promoting the positive impacts for sustainability of actions which they would be taking in any case and when they are making a real strategic commitment. Indeed, the concept of ‘SDG washing’ came up during WHEC coffee breaks.

How is Europe doing? A great number of European universities are genuinely committed to sustainable development, although this commitment often stops short of a holistic SDG strategy. The EU’s common commitments to boost education in environmental sustainability, which are to be finalised before summer 2022, were also noted. However, there is a looming risk that the sustainability agenda will lose steam, remain largely contained in strategic documents or be limited to questions of energy and climate change.

Digitalisation is the big unknown for the future. The UNESCO Roadmap looks to a new phase of digital innovation in higher education where “Artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, collaborative platforms, virtual reality, internet of things, and distributional ledger technology, offer promising ways of improving and enriching the learning experience of students on campus and remotely” (p. 31). However, most of this vision is still more science fiction than reality. When it comes to concrete discussions, it is the experience of remote learning during the pandemic as well as the digital gap among learners that are in focus. Nevertheless, WHEC featured a worthwhile talk by Moodle founder Martin Dougiamas promoting open source for educational technology.

How is Europe doing? Here, Europe is perhaps not so different from the rest of the world. The experience of the pandemic in many ways still dominates thought in this area, although stakeholders are also looking to how digital technologies can enhance quality beyond remote learning. There is also a pinch of scepticism in the European discourse: many voices in Europe are worried about digital academic sovereignty and the risk that private companies will own and sell university data like publishers own and sell research articles. With the European Union generally trying to shape a particular, European data economy, the discussion about digital technology and how they are used is bound to stay with us.

Epistemological dialogue popped up repeatedly at WHEC. The western paradigms of knowledge that spread through colonisation are not all that there is: local communities have practices, approaches and knowledge that deserve to be included in universities. While this should not mean abandoning scientific methodology, it does require an open and respectful dialogue as well as a sincere interest in knowledge that does not originate in a university-based western canon. Participants from Africa, Latin America, and in particular India, emphasised this at WHEC.

How is Europe doing? Epistemological dialogue is not an established concept in European higher education, to say the least. However, even though the European context is different, these ideas could provide welcome inspiration. Understanding knowledge and values that are practiced and codified differently from what we are used to in universities could open space for dialogue, for example with Europeans that are sceptical towards academic experts and the values they represent.

In many ways, Europe has much to contribute as a continent that lives and breathes international cooperation. However, our experience of diverse approaches at home should make us humble – contributing and learning are two sides of the global dialogue, and we can learn from the global conversation, getting a new perspective on our own way of thinking.

For EUA’s part, we will continue to explore dialogue and collaboration through different channels, including the Global University Associations Forum, established together with our international counterparts on 17 May in Barcelona.


Thomas Jorgensen
European University Association

Thomas Jørgensen is Director of Policy Coordination and Foresight at the European University Association.

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