Absence Thinking and the Future of Higher Education: Thoughts From the IAU General Conference

Recently in Bangkok the International Association of Universities (IAU), the UNESCO-based association of higher education institutions, held its 15th General Conference that takes place every four years. The event brings together its nearly 700 institutional and organizational members from around the world to focus on pressing matters facing global higher education. As an affiliate member, IIE participated in the event with team members represented from both the Bangkok and New York offices.

The focus of the conference was to exchange strategies and practices that demonstrate how HEIs contribute to innovation and sustainability. Offering macro perspectives from leaders in education across the globe, the three-day conference included a platform for HEIs to discuss what they can do to lead and be catalysts for change in a continuously changing global landscape.

In the opening plenary session Primrose Kurasha, Vice Chancellor of the Zimbabwe Open University, encouraged the analysis of ideas presented at the conference with the question, “What is not here?” She noted that this framework of Absence Thinking is important for higher education if it is to remain a key part of our social and cultural fabric.

The following are a number of key ideas that emerged from these “What is absent?” discussions that took place in the various sessions as we wrestled with the heavy issues regarding the university, society, and our common future.

  1. Ascendancy of privatization. A theme of concern was voiced regarding the dominant language and practice of the business and private sector within the academy. This in combination with the decline of public support and trust raises once again the question of whether or not higher education is a public or private good. Assuming the trend continues towards privatization, how can access be ensured regardless of socio-economic status in the brave new world of the increasingly corporate university? Additionally, how can universities and the private sector work in tandem for a greater good of sustainable futures and societies where access to education is a right, not only a privilege?
  2. Values and ethics matter. Another dominant theme was that ethics and values must underpin the foundation of higher education. Practical skills and knowledge are not the only outcomes that matter, but of equal importance is the preparation of graduates to engage holistically through the development of attitudes, character, and values that enhance our communities today and in the future. The UN Sustainable Development Goals were pervasive throughout these discussions. If leaders and policy-makers in education merge the SDG framework with institutional objectives and learning outcomes, graduates have greater potential to think critically about social responsibility and how their decisions can impact society. Higher education must raise its sights from the oft-heard mantra of preparing global workers; rather, the university must aspire to the greater and more challenging need of our time, which is to prepare graduates to be global citizens.
  3. Teaching matters. In the rush to appease the metrics associated with the proliferation of university rankings, the academy must not lose its focus on the importance of the principles, practice, and profession of teaching. Teaching, as part of the domain of learning, is as essential to higher education as the research and the co-curricular engagement that takes place within the university community. As noted in a plenary session by Teerakiat Jaroensettasin, Deputy Minister of Education in Thailand, higher education is “not only for living, but also for life; not only for cognition, but character.” The role of the educator is highly influential. If the university is to play a central role in our communities as a transformative institution with broad societal impact, then investing in students is a key method for informing and shaping future generations of thoughtful contributors to society.
  4. Sustainability matters. As the theme of the conference, the underlying assumption is that higher education is ideally positioned to support the goals of sustainable development. This means HEIs that are not just about academic skills, but HEIs that also have the capacity to deliver education for critical thinking and creative solutions in response to tomorrow’s needs. As noted in a presentation by Roberto Barletta, Vice President of Networks at Ericsson Thailand, two billion jobs today will disappear by 2030 and 65% of students will have jobs that are yet to be created. These predictions of obsolete jobs in the future replaced by non-existent positions today highlight the role of HEIs to ensure graduates are not only equipped with technical excellence, but also have key transferable skills to contribute in a world where change is constant. In addition, we must remember that sustainability it is not only about job skills, but it is equally about instilling an inclusive ethic of “us” and a responsibility to future generations.

On behalf of IIE we wish to thank the IAU, Chulalongkorn University, Siam University, the Asian Institute of Technology, and Suranaree University of Technology for organizing and hosting such an important gathering regarding key issues on the future of higher education. The opportunity for like-minded professionals and organizations to meet and reflect upon important themes, and to offer and share solutions was invaluable.