University Leaders From Around World Pledge Reform Role

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NEW YORK--University leaders from two dozen countries acknowledged here last week that they have been "on the sidelines'' of education reform for too long, and they pledged to take a more active role in improving their countries' elementary and secondary schools.

At a conference here, the university presidents, rectors, and vice chancellors from five continents agreed that their precollegiate-education systems are in crisis and said that nearly all their countries are engaged in some sort of educational reform to deal with the situation.

But they also pointed out that, in most countries, higher-education institutions have played only a limited part in the reforms, despite the universities' role in educating teachers and in admitting secondary school graduates.

"Universities can no longer sit on the sidelines,'' said L. Jay Oliva, the president of New York University, which hosted the conference. "We have to participate in policy deliberation and practical solutions.''

But Mr. Oliva and others cautioned that postsecondary institutions must move cautiously in taking steps to improve schools. Otherwise, they said, they risk offending schools by acting arrogantly or clouding their basic mission of research and teaching.

And, suggested Edward M. Walsh, the president of the University of Limerick in Ireland, universities by themselves can do little to solve the most pressing problems facing schools: the social ills that plague children and families.

"It is probably the reality that, if we did all we could to help,'' he said, "with the social backdrop of single-parent families, [the crisis in education] would [still] be as bad as it is.''

The two-day conference, which drew top officials from urban universities in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, grew out of a meeting that took place here in November 1991, when Mr. Oliva was inaugurated as president of N.Y.U.

At that time, Mr. Oliva said, the group members found that they shared a number of common problems and concerns, and agreed to reconvene to address them.

"The thought emerged that we actually had more in common than one would have dreamed,'' he said.

Starting at the Top

The university leaders decided to focus first on precollegiate education, he added, because nearly all the countries represented are confronting a crisis in that area and because most of them are in the midst of reforms.

Yoram Dinstein, the president of Tel Aviv University, questioned, however, whether university presidents are qualified to consider reforms in precollegiate schooling, particularly at the primary level. Discussions about ways to improve early-childhood education should be left to experts in schools of education, he suggested.

But Mr. Oliva argued that higher education's role in school reform should start at the top.

"University presidents set the agenda, the direction, and the concerns of their universities,'' he said.

Common Problems

In describing the educational problems and reforms in their countries, the university leaders touched on a number of themes that would sound familiar to American ears.

In Russia, for example, officials are for the first time facing pressure to allow language-minority students to be schooled in their native languages, said Stanislav P. Merkuriev, the rector of the University of St. Petersburg. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the use of Russian in school was not subject to challenge.

In Ghana, meanwhile, the national government has recently focused on improving the transition from school to work, a concern that has risen rapidly on the agenda in the United States.

"Their aim is to make education as functional as possible, so that university graduates and those not able to go [to universities] can find something worthwhile to do after graduation,'' Godwin Kwaku Nukunya, the pro-vice chancellor of the University of Ghana, told the conference.

Expressing a common theme, Yen Chu, the dean of the faculty of liberal arts at the National Taiwan University, said that the curriculum in that country has placed too great an emphasis on mathematics and science, and has shortchanged instruction in the humanities and social sciences.

Educators from other countries also noted that social changes, particularly changes in family structures, have affected the student population.

M. Ziad Shwaiki, the president of Damascus University, said the rapid spread of Western television in Syria has sapped student motivation by diverting them from their studies and by enticing them with prospects of getting rich quickly.

"Why should they be very well educated and go to university when a football player earns more than a high-ranked professor at any university?'' he asked.

Mr. Merkuriev also argued that the large proportion of women in the workforce in Russia--long a point of pride in that country--has been harmful to students who lack the family supports for their studies.

Such changes have taken a toll on school systems, even those that have traditionally been successful, noted Georges Verhaegen, the president of the Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe.

"On the whole, the European school system is very good,'' he said. "The problem we face is adaptability to a changing society.''

Boosting Teachers' Status

In response to such concerns, the university leaders said, countries have formed reform commissions and enacted policies to improve precollegiate education. But higher education has played a limited role in such efforts, noted Sir Claus Moser, the warden of Wadham College, Oxford University.

"It is surprising how much the education debate in many countries seems to involve local communities, industry, and other sectors of society, and rather less universities,'' he said.

But, he said, postsecondary institutions have a crucial role to play in the education debate, because education should be a "seamless web.''

"In many countries, in fact, the national school curriculum is formulated rather separate from the higher-education curriculum,'' Sir Claus said. "The two worlds don't work together.''

Sir Claus also said that researchers in universities should do a better job than they have done in studying education.

"I can't be very proud of what social science has produced in education research over the decades,'' he said. "Part of the cynicism [directed at universities] is due to poor social-science research.''

Perhaps the greatest contribution universities could make to schools would be to improve the education of teachers, a function nearly all universities share, Mr. Oliva of N.Y.U. said.

He and others outlined a number of suggestions, including strengthening clinical training and providing greater in-service instruction.

"We would be better off if we understand that this is the last profession that we totally ignore after they graduate,'' Mr. Oliva said.

In addition, he said, university presidents could help raise the status of schoolteaching by encouraging faculty members to tailor their instruction to future teachers and by boosting the stature of schools of education. Education programs tend to suffer from low esteem, he noted.

"Don't tell me schools, programs, faculties of education are not viewed as less than full participants in universities,'' Mr. Oliva said. "Who did that? We did that.''

A Call for 'Humility'

But while the conference participants endorsed strengthening their role in school reform, several presidents and rectors also suggested that they should approach the task with caution.

Taking on school bureaucracies often entails political risks, particularly in countries with strong central governments, noted Mr. Nukunya of Ghana.

And MichÁele Gendreau-Massaloux, the chancellor and rector of the academy at the Universities of Paris, cautioned that schools may resent universities that presume to tell them what to do. Universities should be "humble'' and ask schools what they need before providing it, she suggested.

Mr. Oliva also pointed out that, in working with schools, universities should remain aware of their strengths and weaknesses. With limited faculty time and resources, he said, universities cannot do everything, nor should they.

"Even as we go about the business of trying to be involved in schools, we should remember that we are universities--we research and understand things, and teach things to the next generation,'' Mr. Oliva said. "We are not a social-service agency.''

"Keep your soul about you,'' he warned. "You can give it away.''

Vol. 12, Issue 31

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