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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2004

CAUT Criticizes Proposed OECD-UNESCO Guidelines

CAUT is charging that international guidelines being developed to address quality issues in cross-border higher education ignore the interests of academic staff and could promote privatization.

The proposed guidelines, a joint project of the OECD and UNESCO, are a response to what the two agencies describe as an "explosion" in for-profit higher education internationally, including the rapid proliferation of commercial and non-traditional higher education providers. It is argued that this explosion has created a need for mechanisms to protect students from the rise of diploma mills and rogue providers.

At a drafting meeting in Tokyo last month, delegates from nearly 100 countries and representatives of NG0s discussed the content and programme implementation.

David Robinson - an associate executive director of CAUT who was invited to the meeting as part of the Canadian delegation - says he was concerned the thematic structure contained no reference to the importance of academic staff in ensuring quality higher education.

"The simple truth is you can't have a good quality education when the employment and academic rights of staff, including academic freedom and tenure, aren't respected," Robinson said. "Without those cornerstones of critical thinking and inquiry, you can't possibly have quality."

After hearing these arguments, delegates to the meeting appeared to reach a consensus that the initial draft of the guidelines needed to be amended to reflect the concerns and interests of academic staff. But Robinson and others report there are further serious flaws in the guidelines of concern to academic staff associations and unions.

Bill Rosenberg, president of the Association of University Staff in New Zealand, said the guidelines will likely be used to promote the private delivery of higher education.

"Private education providers desperately need recognized stamps of 'quality' because of the difficulties students have telling the rogues from those providing a good standard of education," Rosenberg said. "That problem is not present to nearly the same degree for public providers. There is a high risk that the main outcome in practice of the guidelines is to validate the position of private providers."

Rosenberg is also concerned that the term "quality" is used in the guidelines not to mean how authentic an education is, but only whether it meets a certain consistent standard.

"The definition of quality generally used by quality assurance and accreditation bodies such as the New Zealand Qualifications Authority is 'fitness for purpose'," Rosenberg said. "It comes from an industrial context where the crucial issue for a line of industrial outputs is that they are consistent, so that the customer can rely on the product received. The 'quality' of them in the common sense of how good it is doesn't matter, as long as they're consistently good or consistently bad and the customer knows what she is getting for her money."

In an educational context, Rosenberg suggests, checking for quality in this industrial meaning of the term typically means assessing institutional processes and policies against some standard.

"It tells the customer - the student - nothing about how good an education will be received, but only whether every student going to that institution will get the same deal. The point is that having quality in this sense gives little assurance that a good, let alone excellent, education will be received."

Robinson also says the planned guidelines take on a very similar form to trade agreements like the General Agreement on Trade in Services that CAUT has strongly opposed.

"The guidelines would require governments to establish or encourage the establishment of a system of fair, transparent and not administratively burdensome registration or licensure of all higher education providers operating in their territory including distance higher education," Robinson said.

"This language corresponds directly to provisions in trade agreements which have a powerful narrowing effect on regulatory options.

"That the guidelines would apply to all higher education providers means they would apply to private as well as public, foreign as well as local institutions. That they would apply to distance education providers implies that access to quality assurance and accreditation systems must also be given to providers operating from anywhere else in the world. This is an extraordinary provision."

Robinson and Rosenberg agree there is a need for international guidelines on cross-border higher education, but say the policy must be firmly rooted in educational objectives and must respect the right of governments to determine which providers they should register, assess and accredit.

The final meeting for the drafting group of the international guidelines will take place in Paris in January 2005.