MONTRÉAL - During the months of September and October, two events took place on opposite sides of the world with remarkable alignment between their outcomes and the sense of purpose in their participants. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, the third Asia Europe Education Workshop was organised around the theme “Beyond the Academic Benchmark – Societal Excellence in Higher Education” organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation. Shortly after this, in Montréal, Canada, the European Access Network organised the first World Congress on Access to Postsecondary Education.
The small and carefully selected group of leaders of academia, researchers, industry and students from Asia and Europe discussed in Chiang Mai the common challenges and best practises associated with the target of reaching societal excellence. This is a term used to encompass everything from access, support, employability and civic responsibility of graduates. These issues are made all the more challenging in the face of intense international competition between countries and universities and while the world media pays so much attention, and gives so much credence, to the academic rankings of universities. It was asked how countries and universities can become world leaders in their social responsibilities while every pressure is on producing tiny numbers of specialist graduates.
In Montréal, a much larger gathering from the Access Movement globally engaged in deep and challenging debate on the how to go about making postsecondary education a real prospect for as many people in the world as possible. This staggeringly broad agenda covered issues from financial mechanisms, through recruitment strategies, to science in society for young children and the recurring issue of gender equality in higher education.
Students as a global pressure group
At both of these meetings, the student representatives present identified and exemplified one of the most curious aspects of the organised student movement.
"Students may well be the only global pressure group which advocates at its most vocal on behalf of those who are not its members. When we, as student representatives speak, it is clear that it is not those we actually represent, but those who we ought to represent that are at the forefront of our thoughts on most issues, be it quality of education, internationalisation, or most obviously access to education," says Aengus Ó Maoláin, Equality Coordinator of the European Students' Union (ESU) who attended both the meetings.
"The intriguing example of the universities in Thailand, which have a state-mandated, and quality-assured obligation to excel in the field of social responsibility, when compared to the seemingly hard-nosed, corporate motivations of private, for-profit, universities in the United States, makes one wonder why it is that when higher education as a concept is just about a universal phenomenon, that the systems which enable the institutions of higher education to exist allow such discriminatory practices of student selection as have been the hallmark of the sector for generations to continue," he continues.
The changing landscape of higher education
Higher education has changed. Now is the age of mass higher education and it is predicted that it will soon become the age of universal higher education.
"Universities must no longer act as if they are still elitist, ivory tower bastions of the elite and only the elite. The coming age of semi-formal regional and global networks being the most powerful international organisations in the world makes the ongoing work towards an ASEAN Economic Community one of the most exciting global cooperation projects in the world to observe from the outside. And when the next World Congress takes place in Malaysia in 2015, it is hoped that both the Thai sense of responsibility, and the EAN sense of activism and mobilisation will have made the Access Movement all the more powerful and relevant," Ó Maoláin explains.
ESU will continue to be among those organisations at the forefront of this development, championing the universal right to education for all and working on turning this idea into a reality.
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