Mary-Louise Kearney is currently Consultant to the OECD/IMHE Programme. Until recently she was Director of the Secretariat of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge. On joining UNESCO in 1985 after 15 years in university teaching and educational consulting, Ms Kearney was responsible for university cooperation and partnerships in the Division of Higher Education of UNESCO. In 1998, she was in charge of the organization of the World Conference on Higher Education (WCHE) and then became Director for the WCHE Follow up in 1999. In 2000, she was appointed Director of the Division for Relations with National Commissions and New Partnerships (ERC/NCP) dealing with mobilization of the 192 National Commissions worldwide.
Ms Kearney is a Senior Research Fellow in Higher Education at Oxford University, United Kingdom and a Vice President of Society for Research into Higher Education (SHRE). She is active in the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) and the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (IFBPW) and has authored numerous publications and research papers on Higher Education.
Mary-Louise Kearney, Consultant to the OECD/IMHE Programme and until recently Director of the Secretariat of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge, shares her views on the significance of research for the development of a country. She also highlights the importance of involving a wide range of stakeholders within the research system of a country.
“Time has come where research really has to tackle development issues”
What was the role of the UNESCO Forum on Education, Research and Knowledge?
The forum has been an initiative which started after the 1998 World Conference on Higher Education and the 1999 World Conference on Science to deal with the common interest in research, innovation, higher education and its contribution to development. It highlights that research is extremely important as the base of a country’s knowledge system and that countries should operate regionally and of course internationally because research has all these dimensions today. So it’s about the importance of research and the components of research, which are policies, people, infrastructure and, of course, funding.
What activities have you been carrying out?
The forum has been a space for debate and analysis, primarily amongst research communities in the middle and low income countries. They’re weaker compared to the ones in the OECD high income group where, of course, these issues are very well known and followed carefully. There’s also a debate with wider stakeholders, such as policy makers, academic leaders and the civil society, industry and so forth to see how research is being accommodated within the socioeconomic development.
What has been the response so far?
Countries are beginning to realise how important this integrated approach is. It’s called Higher Education Research Innovation (HERI), and can’t be dealt with individually. There must be an integrated approach. There are countries like Singapore, Qatar, Chile, South Africa as well as emerging countries, such as China and Brazil, which have the structures in place and they’re supporting them to develop quickly. In countries with lower income these systems are virtually non-existent and they lose a lot of their trained people through brain drain. This is really a problem: how can they connect to the knowledge conduits that are those of the knowledge society and economy.
In your opinion, how can higher education become an agent for social transformation?
It has always has been an agent of social transformation, because higher education’s goal is to generate and disseminate knowledge, new knowledge in particular, and there’s no social transformation without this new knowledge. So the question is how to harness this function and its output so that development becomes more equitable. We’ve been saying this for years, but the time has come where research really has to tackle development issues. Now, that’s where you have the link to the Millennium Development Goals, the health, energy, agriculture and sustainable development issues. The immediate help that they may get through the aid conduit has to be balanced by a long term capacity and that is research and unless you have that capacity in a country, you have to borrow it. Or they can do it elsewhere and that is always second best.
Could you mention specific actions that higher education institutions could perform in order to contribute to these goals?
I think you can see now the very clear but complementary roles of what you would call the leading research universities. They tackle very esoteric areas of research where a lot of money is needed and where long term results are probably the norm. However, many institutions are becoming much more locally-oriented. One very good example is in Catalonia, in Spain, which one of the leading examples within OECD countries of institutions that have really become attuned to the region and even the local community needs, linking into business, industry, training and retraining, thus really becoming a partner in the life of the local communities. This is happening more and more within the OECD countries. It has to happen in the emerging economies and there’s a lot to learn from one another on how to do it.
Mary-Louise Kearney was Director of the Secretariat of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge. Funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), the project focused on research systems and involved government policy-makers, academia and civil society, including the private sector. This interview was held during the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education in Paris last July. Following this event, the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge ceased its activities. Detailed information on the Forum as well as related publications are still available from the Forum’s website.
This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat. It is not a literal transcription of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.