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UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 Interview with Perliter Walters-Gilliam

Principal Consultant of NBBE Consulting, Ms. Perliter Walters-Gilliam attended the invitation-only UNESCO 3rd World Higher Education Conference 2022 (WHEC2022) in Barcelona, Spain as the Quality Assurance Expert representative for the island of Dominica, a Small Island Development State (SIDS) in the Eastern Caribbean. Given the significance of this conference in shaping the global vision for higher education, we sat down with Ms. Gilliam for a post-conference interview.

How would you summarize the experience?

In a word – exhilarating. The conference included the best academic minds, forward thinkers, and knowledge generators from all over the world with the sole objective of “Reinventing Higher Education for a Sustainable Future.” On a global scale that is overwhelming but the collective thought is doing it “together” across roles, organizations, institutions, and countries. It was also refreshing to hear the resounding echo that Higher Education is a right, not a commodity.

                                                               That is a profound statement – care to elaborate?

                                                               The commoditization of higher education in the US is very apparent and “access” is                                                                               granted if you can “afford” that commodity. Hence the tuition discounts, scholarships,                                                                             and similar retail terms. The talk on “declining enrollment” is arguably more about the                                                                           decrease in revenues than the decline in ACCESS. Consider this – if Higher Education                                                                         were a right, a right that everyone had, the emphasis would shift to creating and                                                                                     facilitating reasonable access for all. That includes a broader demographic spectrum, those                                                                  with socio-economic challenges, and personal (mental, intellectual, and physical) limitations                                                                  as well as credits earned at other institutions.  The news pieces have been on enrollment                                                                     decline rather than completion – a  critical indicator of success ONCE you enroll. The                                                                            Lumina Foundation was at the conference and shared the work that they have been doing to                                                                facilitate access and student success, so I am not suggesting that nothing is being done.                                                                      Some would argue that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the US are about                                                                    revenue and public relations, and not about achieving true access. There may be some truth                                                                to that as DEI became a flavor of the pandemic, but I am sure there were champions of the                                                                  principles long before it became a catchphrase and new job description.

How does Quality Assurance and Accreditation fit in this conversation?

Great question. I heard multiple times in different sessions the need for qualifications validation and quality standards that would facilitate the acceptance and transference of credentials across borders. This was a concern especially with the increase in the distance education mode of delivery during the pandemic. Another comment (shared more than once) is the need for accreditation agencies to be more agile in this evolving higher education environment so that the review is more than just about regulatory oversight but more about facilitating access, ensuring the measure of “quality” in different context, and supporting the variations of delivery that extend beyond a physical campus. Organizations such as the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE), International Council for Open and Distance Education, and other similar organizations which provide QAA leadership attended the conference and I hope they took note of what is being asked of them.

As a coronary to this, I attended a forum by the National Agency on Quality Assurance (NAQA) of Ukraine on “Higher Education Quality Assurance in the Wartime” and the work of the NAQA has not stopped because of the war – it has, instead, pivoted to support the higher education institutions in the ways that they need it during this difficult time in the country.

Any other Conference highlights you would like to share?

There were a lot, but I’ll share a couple. First, Higher Education is globalized and as a result, it is no longer just about a physical campus that serves a certain demographic of students. The conference created the space to have a dialogue on the acceptance and development of all forms of higher education for all segments of the global population. Examples include vulnerable and marginalized populations (including refugees and asylum seekers), the Indigenous peoples, non-traditional, non-academic students in vocational and technical post-secondary programs (what a novel idea), and correspondence education seekers (because internet access is NOT universal).

Second, UNESCO’s call is to look towards 2030 but then beyond to a higher education system that is more inclusive, more accessible, more representative of the realities of life across the globe. There was a universal call to action from all stratospheres of society to make that happen. Anecdotal examples - I spoke with a young gentleman who is completing his Ph.D. at Oxford and doing work on decarbonization; I spent time with another from Tanzania who has developed a program that has 85% success in predicting high school dropout so that intervention measures can be taken. These students can then go on to higher education opportunities that will better their communities.

These practical applications of how higher education can be a vehicle for change and sustainability of nations are encouraging.

You mention a universal call to collaborative action – what would that look like?

What it looks like will differ based on context – community, society, and country – but it should include all stakeholders and not just politicians or regulators or academics. A polarized higher education system is definitely not what it looks like and QAA entities, in the US, have a lot of work to do in “depolarizing” the environment and moving away from regulating/compliance-checking to facilitating quality IMPROVEMENT that reflects a higher education that everyone can believe in again.

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