The 17th Higher Education Reform conference was held from 21-23 June at the Univesity of Glasgow with some 150+ delegates from 30 countries hosted by CR&DALL. The focus of HER over the years has been research investigating various aspects of policy reforms and other major changes in higher education, and at this conference the specific focus was the role of universities in addressing the SDGs. We have pleasure in posting now concluding remarks made by HER Board member, Germán Álvarez Mendiola, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados (Cinvestav), Mexico. We also attach the final programme for the conference with all abstracts. Many of these are in the process of being developed into book chapters and journal articles.
Dear colleagues and friends,
We have reached the end of the 17th International Conference on Reforms in Higher Education. After four consecutive years of being postponed, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this conference reaffirmed our commitment to reflection and open dialogue and, promote close contact with colleagues and their ideas, stimulate the establishment of connections and collaborations, and above all, advance knowledge on relevant issues that have warranted attention in governmental, institutional, and research agendas on higher education. I have been asked to offer a brief overview of the papers presented during these three intense days and to attempt some conclusions.
The theme of this conference was the role of higher education in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the reforms it requires. The theme is enormous - with multiple dimensions, levels, approaches, and political and educational positions.
We had presentations on very specific experiences at the institutional level, as well as collective experiences from groups of institutions, and overviews of the status of the SDGs in certain countries or even multiple countries. The presentations were based on a wide variety of data and research methodologies. The topics can be grouped into ten major categories:
1. Policy and governance.
Specific topics were addressed such as systemic and institutional governance, reforms to achieve the SDGs, missions and strategic plans, university management, implementation of the SDGs in universities, institutional and national experiences, financing, entrepreneurship, and agreements and alliances between institutions.
Critical work was presented on evaluation, systemic, institutional, and individual performance indicators, and standards.
Discussions revolved around knowledge production and communication in various areas related to the SDGs, as well as research on the SDGs within the university context.
4. Teaching and learning
Presentations focused on teaching practices, teacher training, curriculum development, online modalities, and lifelong learning.
5. Equity and inclusion
Specific topics addressed were equity, student retention, inclusion and overcoming discrimination, indigenous education, gender perspective, intercultural and multicultural education, the right to higher education, and health.
Main themes were academic freedom, creativity, justice, eco-justice, and religion.
The presentations featured diverse methodologies, including intersectional approaches, surveys, in-depth and semi-structured interviews, Foucauldian analysis, text analysis, case studies, quantitative and qualitative methods, Delphi method, arts-based learning, rubrics, bibliometrics, creativity-based methods, website reviews, observations, action research, and gamification. Some presentations focused on methodologies, particularly for conflict-related research and university-society engagement evaluation, and on indigenous methodologies.
8. Global tendencies of higher education
This theme involved discussions on digitalization, internationalization, universalization, and commercialization.
Presenters discussed the roles of students and youth, graduates and employability, university professors and basic education teachers, and decision-makers.
10. Facilities and services
Presentations touched upon the role of libraries and the internet in promoting the SDGs.
Of course, this is a somewhat simplified way of organizing the topics addressed in this conference. Each presentation touched upon several of these themes, highlighting the interconnectedness among them. The SDGs and the problems they seek to address are connected in multiple ways and require comprehensive consideration.
From my perspective, the most relevant aspect of these discussions was the concern about what is being done, what achievements or failures are perceived, what positive or undesirable effects have been produced, what we know, and how we evaluate what has been accomplished. A widespread discontent with excessive rhetoric and a lack of action, resources, and personnel was evident. This also includes the idea that universities themselves need to prioritize the achievement of the SDGs, such as reducing their own environmental impacts, contributing to basic education and lifelong learning, and achieving social, economic, and gender equality.
The vast majority of participants, if not all, reaffirmed their conviction regarding the significant contributions that higher education is called upon to make in addressing the immense problems faced by humanity as a whole: global climate change; destruction of nature and pollution; poverty and inequality; concentration of power and economic resources; populism, polarization, and post-truth; corruption; war; violence and insecurity; educational deficiencies; gender inequalities; health issues; pandemics; and problems accessing healthcare services, among many others.
Through their essential functions, higher education institutions can generate, distribute, and communicate knowledge, encourage changes in individual and social rules and practices, establish alliances among institutions, engage with communities, and seek collaborative solutions with others, always with an open, pluralistic spirit that respects differences. It is crucial for higher education to critically reflect on itself and engage in reforms.
Achieving everything is complex. In this conference, as in many other academic and political settings around the world, opposing perspectives were expressed that are difficult to reconcile. Some conceive the SDGs as a social, economic, educational, and cultural process in which progress occurs through complex balances, negotiations, approaches, initiatives, and finance. Others argue that radical changes are needed to consistently advance the SDGs. For some, the concepts of development and growth are incompatible with the true solution of the problems; disciplinary specialization fragments solutions and hinders dialogue between knowledge domains; individual transformation conflicts with collective and community needs; and higher education perpetuates the system of social, political, and economic inequality. These tensions and contradictions pose an intellectual and political challenge that must be embraced by academics.
This conference brought us new insights, knowledge and experience and reaffirmed the need to continue the dialogue based on research and guided by the pursuit of reforms in higher education. We should celebrate it as it is at the heart of the HER series, initiated 20 years ago under the leadership of our colleague Hans Schuetze, whose enthusiasm is as great as his academic rigor and his ability to establish friendships all over the world. Thanks are also due to an extraordinary group of colleagues who have been promoters of the HER Conference series since the first which took place in 2003 in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia. I refer to Maria Slowey (Dublin), and Shinichi Yamamoto (Tsukuba, later Hiroshima and Tokyo), as well as other colleagues who have joined along this journey, such as Hans Pechar (Vienna), Mei Li (Shanghai), Andrä Wolter (Berlin), Pavel Zgaga (Ljubljana), James Jacob (Pittsburgh), Rob Shea (St. John’s), Sumin Li (Tianjin), Futao Huang (Hiroshima), Antigoni Papadimitriou (Baltimore), and now Mike Osborne (Glasgow). All these colleagues have been outstanding organizers of one or more of these conferences, and we miss the presence of several of them.
I would not like to conclude without first expressing my gratitude to all of you for your presence at this conference. Your presentations are what give life to this gathering, and that is the main value of our work. I also extend a very grateful recognition to Mike Osborne and his formidable team of collaborators who have organized this excellent meeting. always with warmth and generosity. Special thanks to the Centre for Research & Development in Adult and Lifelong Learning (CR&DALL) and the University of Glasgow for hosting us at the new facilities of the Advanced Research Centre.
This conference series has been sustained by the strong bonds of collaboration and friendship among the organizing group. We are a non-formal network, lacking offices and resources from formal membership. We have been united only by a genuine academic spirit for knowledge and the exchange of ideas. Our meetings, initially workshops and later international conferences, have tended to be relatively small, thus fostering close encounters and deeper discussions than those typically found in other conferences. I trust that this spirit will remain with us and that all those who have participated in any of these conferences will carry it to any place where the simple, yet profound human act of inquiry and discussion takes place.