Held for the fourth consecutive year, the World Education Market is fast becoming the premier international education event. S. INDRAMALAR reports on what went on at WEM 2003 in Lisbon, Portugal, last month.
DESPITE huge government allocations the world over, education is presently the most unproductive and under performing sector.
“Even with consistent increases in budget (allocations) for education, the performance of the sector is at a stalemate,” said Dr Carl Dahlman, knowledge economy expert from the World Bank Institute in his keynote address.
Dr Dahlman's proclamation got the attention of the thousand-odd conference participants present on the first day of the World Education Market 2003 in Lisbon, Portugal.
This situation, coupled with the radical changes taking place: the impacts of globalisation, the increasing importance of education in the creation of knowledge economies and the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution, spells the need for governments and education institutions and providers to pull up their socks, and fast.
Especially, Dr Dahlman pointed out, since education and training are the two key enablers of the knowledge economy.
Presenting pretty much the same picture was Viviane Reding, European Commission member responsible for Education and Culture, who, in her opening address, emphasised the need for governments to review their approach and education strategies.
She said: “The need for cooperation in all areas of education and training policy reflects a fundamental characteristic of the 21st century. We see that national Governments acting alone cannot meet the challenges of globalisation, new technologies and of the single market.
“The reform of education and training systems will not be successful if traditional barriers between different forms and levels of education and training are not broken down. An integrated approach to learning is needed to break down the artificial separation between education, professional training and lifelong learning.”
The effective use of new technologies, she added, can help achieve this reform by opening up access, improving flexibility and facilitating new partnerships.
An annual trade event for education professionals, WEM comprises an extensive exhibition showcase of the best and latest in education from around the world; a conference programme highlighting topical issues; as well as networking opportunities to facilitate cross-country partnerships.
Both Reding and Dr Dahlman set the stage for the three full days of discussions at WEM 2003 and though a whole gamut of issues was debated, it was clear that the focus of the participants and the slant of the event were on e-learning, the role of new technologies and how they can effectively be used to improve delivery and access to education as well as global cooperation.
“There is a big storm brewing and we (higher education institutions) will be hit if we do not act fast enough.”
Dr Dahlman, in his session, New Challenges for Tertiary Education, questioned the readiness of institutions and governments to face the rapid transformations, particularly in tertiary education.
“We are in the middle of a knowledge revolution and developing countries especially, run the risk of being left behind. We need to develop strategies on how we can use knowledge effectively to build knowledge economies as there is enough empirical evidence that education is integral in developing a knowledge economy,” said Dr Dahlman.
The 21st century, he noted, is witnessing a profound change in the world – an increasingly global economy, unprecedented knowledge generation and dissemination amid rapid scientific and technological advances as well as markedly new public and private sector roles.
The bottomline is that all these changes impact significantly upon the demand and nature of high quality education. Though these changes present rich opportunities for education, they have not been fully exploited.
International Finance Corporation's Ronald Perkinson shared similar views.
“The use of ICT, for instance, is still at the beginning of the beginning. We are amazed at how technology has changed education delivery and pedagogy, but in truth, there is much more to come.”
What universities (and other education institutions) must realise is that constant re-evaluation and change is necessary, depending on student needs as well as the environment.
Promise more than delivery
In the session titled Meeting of Minds: Retrench or Leap Forward, Dr Andras Szucs, the director of Budapest University of Technology and Economics' Distance Education Centre said one of the problems is that change has been slow and not radical as it should be.
“ICT in education has become part of the blend. E-learning so far has demonstrated more promise and potential than performance. E-learning programmes are often superficial and progress, or lack of it, has not been helped by over-hype and promotion. Also, e-learning needs standards regulation which is not often respected,” said Dr Szucs.
He added that only very few universities have invested in robust technological and pedagogical infrastructure and that the majority are content with small scale or pilot projects.
“At most universities, electronically available courses are in postgraduate and part time education. Although e-learning is recognised as a key element in institutional modernisation at universities, this only happens occasionally in effective terms.”
Dr Szucs said the sluggish development of e-learning in higher education is a universal malaise.
“First of all, resistance from teachers and opposition from institutions were largely underestimated. Also, students look for efficiency gain rather than the pedagogical opportunities in ICT,” reported Dr Szucs.
On top of that, even in transnational education, the figures aren't very impressive nor significant, he concluded.
“The flow of students is mainly from developing countries to a few industrialised nations – mainly from Asia to US or UK. Problems that arise on the other hand include the high cost, access, accreditation and quality; plus the possibility of fake universities and diploma mills on the net abound,” he said.
The views of the three speakers were supported by a study on market development, practices and policy on e-learning in Europe by Scienter and five other independent companies which compiled information based on press review, literature, events, catalogues and samples from surveys.
Dr Claudio Dondi, president of Scienter, revealed at the conference that the market was still immature and lacked transparency, among other things.
“The market is yet unsure and unclear about what is available. Also, we found that the market is still very driven by supply and government investment initiatives,” he said, adding that inhibiting factors included high set-up costs, inadequate technical infrastructure, low consumer awareness, cultural resistance, lack of corporate vision, low teacher confidence as well as concerns about quality and effectiveness.
There was also, he revealed, a gap between research and practice.
Prof Mario Avelar, the vice-rector (human and social sciences) of Portugal's Universidade Aberta, said universities have to design learning environments that will respond primarily to student needs.
“Changes are not the same year in and year out. For instance, even after incorporating e-learning, universities must change according to student needs.”
Amidst these pessimistic reports however, emerged verification that there were institutions that have made considerable advancements in the utilisation of ICT in education. Panning Dr Szucs' too pessimistic depiction of the present situation, Terry Hilsberg, chief executive officer of Australia's Global University Alliance, clearly stated his conviction that the ICT revolution is changing people's lives by integrating modern IT with traditional education methods, breaking barriers of time and space.
“Education is an industry and higher education is the most industrialised of education forms. The delivery of education is changing – now, education goes to the students and not vice versa,” said Hilsberg in the Meeting of Minds: Retrench or Leap Forward session.
Not discounting the points raised by Dr Dahlman, Perkinson and Dr Szucs, Hilsberg suggested that ICT in education was not as productive as predicted only because it was not utilised to its fullest.
“Most think that the (Inter)net's impact is about a student in rural India doing a course at some UK university via the web. But this is not the real benefit. It’s all in supply-chain management. These days, you can administer an exam in China to 50 kids, scan in the transcripts, have it marked in India and see the results served up on a computer in the UK. That’s quite revolutionary and what it tends to do is cut the guts out of the administrative costs of universities,” he explained.
Citing the example of the China Network Universities, Hilsberg showed how the China Education and Research Network (Cernet) has been successful in using technology in providing “scalable and replicable delivery of post-secondary education of consistent quality”.
Cernet incorporates 66 of the top 100 Chinese universities, including nearly all of the top 10. After just three years of operations, it has 180,000 students enrolled in 966 learning centres. It is the first nationwide education and research computer network in China.
Funded by the Chinese Government and directly managed by the Chinese Ministry of Education, Cernet is constructed and operated by Tsinghua and other leading universities. Cernet's National Centre is located in Tsinghua University while the 10 regional network centres and main nodes are distributed in Tsinghua University, Beijing University, Beijing University of Post and Telecommunication, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Xi'an Jiaotong University, Central China University of Science and Technology, South China Institute of Technology, China University of Electronic Science, Southeast University and Northeast University, all of which are responsible for the operation, management, planning and construction of Cernet regional backbones.
“It will be a rational choice for me to send my children to Tsinghua in 2012, rather than to Sydney or Stanford, assuming they are able to gain entry,” said the Australian Hilsberg.
He, however, acquiesced that growth has largely been in the private sector as “the public sector seems to be asleep at the wheel”.
“Policy seems generally to follow trade and not lead it. Many western universities can't decide where they want to be when they grow up.
“Meanwhile, we find public university staff moonlighting in the private sector, thus reducing private sector risk,” he opined.
Except for the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, he said, most of Western Europe has not been actively involved in the higher education trade.
However, deflationary forces in the world market are forcing European universities to look outwards for income to survive.
In Australia, a reduction in public funding has forced universities to become entrepreneurial just to keep their heads above the water. Among the initiatives taken were the increase in overseas students and off-shore campuses.
Hilsberg, however, pointed out that exploiting new technology would enable universities to move their activities to where it were less costly and more efficient.
His bullish attitude towards globalisation was not warmly welcomed by his European counterparts who, though agreeing that Europe needed to be more competitive, wanted to retain the traditional model of higher education.
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