Higher Education Reform Conference 2023

Higher Education Reform Conference 2023

What is HER? 

The Higher Education Reform (HER) initiative was inaugurated by the Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education at the University of British Columbia in 2003, with a focus on research investigating various aspects of policy reforms and other major changes in higher education. Every year (until the COVID-19 pandemic), this series of international workshops chooses a main theme which reflects a current trend of  higher education research and gives opportunities for internationally active researchers to present their up to date work. The conferences have covered various topics, ranging from internationalization and marketization to issues of institutional governance (see below). The major papers from the conferences have been published, either in the form of monographs, special issues of academic journals, or as individual articles or chapters. Organizers served also as editors, with occasional help from members of the International Advisory Board.

A key aim of the series is to facilitate engagement and intensive dialogue on the topic at hand. For this reason, while attendance is open to all interested parties, the target number of participants is usually relatively small (c75-100). Participants include post-secondary education researchers, both professors and graduate students, policy analysts and representatives of HE ministries or policy bodies. A strength of the conference series is the opportunity it offers for cumulative discussions over the years: there is usually a body of around 25 to 30 people, who have attended most of the workshops.

In 2023, HER's focus was held at the University of Glasgow (21-23 June 2023) and the theme was: the Sustainable Development Goals: Their potential and relevance for higher education policy and reform. 

The After2030 Project at HER

Annalise Hallsall attended the HER 2023 conference in Glasgow for the After2030 project and presented on the project's objectives and initial meeting at CIES 2023. In this post, she shares her reflections for the project: 


‘We won’t achieve the SDGs by 2030 anyway, will we?’ 

Cynical for some, realistic for others: this was often the first response when I told people about the After 2030 project. 

The setting was the Higher Education Reform conference (HER 2023), taking place across three days at the University of Glasgow in June. With around 150 delegates, all with Higher Education at the core of their interests, it was the ideal place to present the After 2030 team’s work and gather more insights about the interaction between Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

A wide range of views on the SDG agenda were unearthed by the After 2030 team at our workshop in Washington D.C., but the focus on higher education at HER 2023 cast new light on how global development agendas are implemented.

As seen earlier this year, views on the current SDG agenda are diverse, and discussions at HER 2023 continued this trend. Presentations at HER 2023 tended to focus on the role of universities in helping to achieve the SDGs, implicitly assuming their “good”, but others – including keynote speaker, Michele Schweisfurth (University of Glasgow) – took time to highlight the weaknesses of the SDGs, often with the message that focusing solely on achieving the SDGs is not sufficient for socially just progress within the HE sector.

While some speakers were split into two camps on their view of the SDGs (some describing them as “inspiring”, others as “technocratic”), Peter Scott (UCL) offered a third way, sharing his view of the SDGs as a transformative agenda that is necessarily hidden in technocratic language in order to remain apolitical.

This highlighted a key theme on the simultaneous power and constraints of institutions – both in terms of the SDGs as a tool developed by and for institutions, and in terms of HEIs abilities to transform and implement agendas. HER 2023 noted the tension in the natural role of universities to conserve knowledge for future generations alongside the call to innovate thought and knowledge to meet the challenges faced today.

Do HEIs have the capability to take something technocratic and turn it into something transformative?  Of course, it depends on the HEI itself, but HER 2023 raised a number of collective challenges facing HEIs, leading to little consensus within the conference on the role of HEIs in the global political arena.

Some argued that HEIs expertise, time and resources places them with the duty to deliver SDGs, while others pointed to the fallibility of HEIs themselves, stating that the fundamental issues of how HEIs work – their own shortcomings against the SDGs – need to be addressed before they start telling the rest of the world how to deal with the SDGs, and by extension, what should be part of future agendas.

Likewise, if taking a critical view of the SDGs, Sandra Kouritzin and Satoru Nakagawa (University of Manitoba) pointed out that HEIs are not necessarily the answer to these weaknesses, using critical discourse analysis on universities in Canada to demonstrate the incongruence between HEI messages littered with market-based metaphors used – somewhat ironically – to advertise their commitment to sustainability.

Finally, a question of balance of power was raised by Shinichi Yamamoto (Oberlin University, Tokyo) arguing that HEIs must maintain a degree of independence from national and international politics, or else governments alone will be responsible for sustainable development initiatives.

“From commitment to action to progress”

What then, does all of this mean for the role of HEIs in the SDGs going forward? What factors ensure the chain from commitment to the SDGs, to action, and then to progress? What will allow and encourage HEIs to take an agenda and to make it more ambitious on their own terms?

Whether or not the SDGs are achieved by 2030, consensus was found in that HEIs must remain engaged in the conversation.

In correcting HEIs’ own shortcomings, delegates called for the academic freedom to ask hard questions and go against the grain within their institutions as well as the wider international community. They discussed the uncomfortable truth that academics often find it easier to criticise than to correct, and that greater focus on dialogue and engagement could help us ease away from this tendency. The conference ended with a call to action to research the SDG process as a critical friend, working alongside the SDGs, leading on them, and getting behind them.