Eva Egron-Polak was educated in the Czech Republic, Canada and France. She has degrees in Political Science, French Literature, and International Political Economy. Her post-graduate research at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Canada focused on European Union policy-making in higher education.
Prior to taking up the position as Secretary-General of IAU in January 2002, she worked for more than 15 years in various positions at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. On leave from AUCC, from 1996 to 1998 she served as Director of Cooperation at the IAU.
Eva Egron-Polak has also served on a number of committees, experts groups and bodies on higher education. She is the author of many articles on internationalisation of higher education, the role of universities in international development and related topics.
Eva Egron-Polak was named Chevalier, Les Palmes académiques, by the Government of France in 1995.
Secretary-General and Executive Director of the International Association of Universities (IAU). Eva Egron-Polak talked about IAU’s role in the current higher education area and the main challenges facing higher education institutions. Diversity and inclusiveness, local relevance, quality of programmes and collaboration between universities are the key challenges that systems face in order to serve societies and their needs
“Diversity and local relevance are becoming major challenges for higher education in the 21st century.”
Ms Egron-Polak’s papers “Sharing quality higher education across borders: a responsibility of higher education institutions” and “International association of universities: the information clearinghouse on higher education in the world” were included in the GUNI Report “Higher Education in the World 2007”.
What role has the International Association of Universities (IAU) played in strengthening the quality of higher education? What could its role be in the future?
The International Association of Universities (IAU) is the oldest association of universities and leading higher education institutions. It has almost 60 years of experience and is probably the most global association of its kind in the world. It was founded by a number of traditional universities in the 1950s and played a key role in promoting peace in the period after the second world war with the aim of creating bridges in higher education through the sharing of experiences.
Since then, our membership numbers have multiplied by five or six, but we have also become far more diverse. IAU has just adopted a new motto for the organisation, “IAU: For a worldwide community of higher education”, as a result of its move away from its exclusive focus on universities. In the higher education sector, there are institutions that do not fall into the traditional category of universities as research centres, but that are also of high quality, as well as being extremely useful and relevant to the needs of our society.
IAU facilitates learning among higher education leaders, and acts as an advocate on their behalf by preparing policy statements based on shared principles and values. We facilitate information sharing, and publish the most comprehensive directories of higher education institutions. IAU also provides comparative data reports about higher education systems, which is an essential service in a sector that is rapidly growing into a global area.
I do not feel that there is currently a worldwide higher education community: the gaps between north and south are still large. Building a worldwide higher education community still entails a great deal of work. Information, mobility and the number of actors involved are increasing and changes are taking place rapidly, but, most importantly, competition appears to rule the day.
How does the IAU strengthen and promote collaboration between universities, particularly between developing and developed countries?
IAU was created to provide not only moral, but also material support to institutions in developing countries, and I think it continues to hold this as a central value. We all have something to learn from each other. The experiences in industrialised countries are of course something that institutions in developing countries look up to, but anyone who travels to and collaborates with institutions in developing countries knows that learning is a mutual process.
The IAU has a commitment to continue providing mechanisms for cooperation and for ensuring that institutions in developing countries can participate in IAU. Last year, for the first time in history, we reduced membership fees for developing countries by 20%, so that financial resources would not prevent institutions from joining the association. This was a major decision because IAU is funded by its membership fees, but it enables universities in developing countries to continue to play an active role in the association.
In addition, we ensure that all of our activities (symposiums, conferences, etc.) have a geographic balance among the participants. We have asked for some support to accomplish this, and have in the past received partial support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and others to help higher education leaders from developing countries to participate in our meetings and to contribute papers.
We have also developed a new programme on institutional reform, which will allow institutional leaders (especially second and third level senior management) to visit each other, to learn from each other, and to set up networks and partnerships dealing with various aspects of institutional reform. The areas of interest may include the diversification of funding, institutional governance, student services and the introduction of ICTs in management or curriculum design. These learning visits can take place on a South-South level, because developing countries are very often able to learn a great deal from each other. Furthermore, participants can also choose to visit partners in the North through this initiative. The aim of this new programme is to provide the means for promoting leadership skills through mutual learning and networking. It was approved at the last board meeting and fundraising is underway, so it will hopefully be launched in the course of 2007.
According to the IAU, what are the main challenges of higher education for the next five years?
One of the major challenges for IAU is to find unique ways of serving the community in a global higher education area in which there is an ever-increasing number of actors. Thus, we must identify all the areas of activity and the issues that are of interest to our community, and more generally, we must identify the main issues that are of global importance for higher education institutions.
This is linked to another major challenge, namely, how to deal with diversity. We have been listening to and discussing issues related to accreditation, the race to the top of the league table and a place among “world class” higher education institutions. Unfortunately, I think these concerns may undermine another set of policy issues that are related to how to offer a diversity of higher education experiences to students, society, and employers. I do not believe that every university needs to be research-intensive, and, in fact, we know that no government or system is able to sustain a large number of such research-intensive institutions. On the contrary, we need to find value and purpose in a diversity of institutions. I believe that this is one of the main challenges.
In fact, this issue is part of another new IAU initiative in which we are looking at access to higher education and the related matters of success and bottlenecks. The real question is access to what and success in what. We could spend a great deal of time talking about access to the top 10 universities in a country, but we really need to recognise that what is more important is access to a wide variety of programmes. If this is the case, the debate then takes on a somewhat different structure. This is a challenge for the higher education system, particularly given the competitive nature of the system and the fact that most institutions are under pressure from the market rather than being free to pursue the ‘public good’. This framework creates market forces that are pushing us towards a much more pyramid-like system.
It is clear that a system requires research-intensive and specialised higher education institutions, but most systems also need a much broader set of institutions that allow learners to pursue a diversity of quality programmes that meet diverse needs. Responding to such needs remains a major challenge.
This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat at the 3rd International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education, November 27-29 2006. It is not a literal transcription of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.