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Seizing Digital Opportunities in Higher Education: Equity, Quality, and Innovation

(by UNESCO Bangkok, ICT in Education/APEID)

© Flickr/Reilly Butler

With the rapid expansion of ICTs, new generations of students are learning with new technologies every day. As technologies respond to the growing needs and expectations of the users, students have to adapt to the changing nature of learning and preparing for the ever-unpredictable world of work. Although much of the younger generation is considered to be the ‘digital natives’ and an increasing number of them are pursuing higher education, their needs however are not uniform in nature, and are not always systematically met by the formal education systems. Higher education institutions today are in need of radical transformations to profoundly impact the changing nature of learners and the tools and environments with and in which they are learning.

As evidenced in Figure 1, after more than two decades of explosive growth in the numberof higher education institutions in Asia and the Pacific, many universities have been forced to ‘expand out’ and ‘expand up’ in order to accommodate the increasing needs and enrolment rates due to the growing perception of higher education providing prosperity and better quality of life (UIS, 2011). While governments have sought ways to make the costs more feasible by covering some fees, utilizing online and distance instruction, and promoting the growth of private universities, the question remains whether the increased access has led to greater equity, and even more so, quality (UIS, 2011). Although Asia Pacific has seen greater gender equity in most of the countries, the issue of access still remains as the main barrier to the least privileged populations (UIS, 2011). The reality is that the ‘ivory tower’ of higher education is still unattainable to many, while being irrelevant, outdated and meaningless to others. And while most will agree that innovation is the future of higher education, the system requires reform as well as development of a ‘culture of innovation’ in order to reach this higher-level goal. Few universities are properly equipped to embrace the potentials of the innovation shift in order to utilize this resource as a way to mitigate the challenges of higher education. While education provides necessary skills and competencies, it cannot be limited to reacting to global demands, but must have a proactive influence on social, economic, cultural, and overall global changes. Therefore, in order to respond to the challenges, educational innovation is critical in anticipating responses and offering new solutions to unresolved and emerging issues.

Given these growing dilemmas, some have asked: have we reached the end of the current approach to public higher education in Asia-Pacific? (Hawkins et al., 2015). And is it prime time to reconsider and reformat our approaches to teaching, learning, and innovating? The year 2015 was a turning point that led educators to call for a reformulation of our collective goals – not based on access, but on a vision that embraces the full spectrum of a learning society across the lifespan.  Seizing digital opportunities in higher education embodies this call to action and ensures quality education, innovation, and lifelong learning opportunities for all. The Qingdao Declaration is the first global declaration on ICTs in Education, which outlines these aspirations. It aims to help “improve and diversify learning pathways, improve quality, and further reach vulnerable and underserved groups” (Qingdao Declaration, 2015, par. 11). For the first time, ICTs are recognized as a potential driver of sustainable development (WTIS, 2015). More specifically, digital technologies, including mobile learning can be harnessed to strengthen higher education in support of quality lifelong learning and effective service provision. This shift – from access to quality – means that leadership can no longer be about sustaining efforts from past commitments, but instead may require a disruption and innovation in efforts to make education systems not only more accessible, but more relevant (Reimers, 2015). The issues of equity, quality, and innovation are thus intertwined, and must be harnessed collectively by policy makers, higher education institutions, education leaders, experts, international organizations, and others.

Quality education must inherently be supported by robust quality assurance measures and appropriate regulation to provide pathways for student success and recognition of their certificates, diplomas, degrees and qualifications and a range of non-formal learning activities such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other modes of learning (Paris Message, June 2015). To address these issues, UNESCO encourages both formal and non-formal learning to promote flexible learning pathways that allow learners to validate and accredit prior learning regardless of the setting. In other words, that traditional education providers explore new opportunities to support and recognize high quality teaching and learning in a variety of settings. The 1983 Regional Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas and Degrees in Higher Education in Asia and the Pacific and 2011 Revised Convention reflect the importance of these recognition issues in higher education as well as their implications for international student mobility. In search of quality higher education, students are increasingly mobile both within the Asia-Pacific region and worldwide, with an increase of over 300% in global tertiary students seeking a degree in another country (Figure 3).

This trend highlights the importance of UNESCO’s work to support implementation of the regional conventions on the recognition of higher education qualifications, but also that students are increasingly willing to travel for quality teaching and learning experiences. In light of these needs, the Higher Education Programme at UNESCO Bangkok aims to encourage standards and norms that contribute to the development of higher education in Asia Pacific. It conducts and promotes research, policy dialogue and information sharing on higher education issues, in particular, the implications of the massification of higher education systems, and the impact of globalisation. Some of the many goals of the programme are to widen access to and improve quality of higher education through the use of ICT, and ensure quality and qualifications recognition. Additionally, the ICT in Education Programme focuses on the potential of ICT in achieving quality education for all, cultivating a ‘culture of innovation’ in education at all levels. In this regard, one of the team’s projects is the UNESCO Resource Distribution and Training Centres (RDTC) network, which acts as a national and regional focal point for enhancing teacher skills in facilitating effective ICT-pedagogy integration, sharing promising practices, and promoting innovation in the field of education. The network encompasses 24 teacher education institutions across 12 countries in Asia Pacific (for the full list, please click here). 

As innovation becomes a more instrumental part of education, and a difficult phenomenon to measure and assess, UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has undertaken analytical frameworks and guidelines for innovation studies. Building on the Oslo Manual, which promoted the collection of comparable innovation indicators, UIS aims to apply these standards across the world to create an international database of innovation statistics for countries.[1] Additionally, the UNESCO Wenhui Award for Educational Innovation aims to recognize the contributions of educators and institutions, which have optimized the potential of education and innovation to address and resolve pressing issues facing our world today. UNESCO and the entire UN System will join you on this journey to seize digital opportunities through innovation, and ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.

As this newsletter edition aims to highlight the importance of equity and innovation in higher education, this issue features an expert article by Professor Ricky Kwok from the University of Hong Kong that explores the options of scaling out teachers and scaling up learning through innovative pathways. The Programmes and Projects section features articles by UNESCO IITE on their initiated project related to access, equity, and quality in higher education; the UNESCO Category 2 International Centre for Higher Education Innovation in Shenzhen, China; the OECD IRHED project focused on the transformative role of ICTs; the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University, Australia; and the Rising Stars project of the Wedu NGO that provides learning opportunities for women in Southeast Asian countries. The News and Events section offers an overview of the few upcoming meetings, such as the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week, DEANZ2016, and ACTC 2016. In the Resources, readers can get acquainted with the ADB publication on access and equity in higher education in Asia; peruse the Innovation Policy Platform developed by WBG and OECD; download learning and teaching tools, resources, and apps; and join a community and an academic social network. Finally, in the New Publications, reports by UNESCO provide a glance into inclusive education, teacher policy development, and an overall vision of Education 2030. 



13th World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Symposium (WTIS). 2015. Grand Prince Hotel, in Hiroshima, Japan, from 30 November to 2 December 2015.

Hawkins, J.N., D. Neubauer, Mok, K.H., Wu, A. 2015. The Limits of Massification in the Asia Pacific Region: Six Dilemmas. Asia Pacific Higher Education Research Partnership (APHERP). APHERP Seminar, November 2015.Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong SAR, China

OECD. 2014. Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing.

Paris Message. June, 2015. UNESCO and ICDE Global High Level Policy Forum, Paris, 9-11 June 2015. Online, Open and Flexible Higher Education for the future we want.

Qingdao Declaration. May, 2015. International Conference on ICT and Post-2015 Education: Seize Digital Opportunities. Lead Education Transformation. Qingdao City, the People’s Republic of China, 23-25 May 2015.

Reimers, F.M. October, 2015. Taking Action on Global Education. Special seminar at UNESCO Bangkok on 16 October 2015.

UIS. 2011. Higher Education in Asia: Expanding Out, Expanding Up. The rise of graduate education and university research.


Contact info: Auken Tungatarova, a.tungatarova[at]; Wesley Robert Teter, wr.teter[at] 


[1] For more information on UIS Measuring Information, click on the link