(This work is part of the academic effort of the Latin American and Caribbean Observatory of Multilaterals Organisms, Development Banks, Technological Corporations and Philanthropy Observatory attached to the International Research Center Otras Voces en Educaciòn)
At the end of the Second World War, the peoples of the world, horrified by the loss of human lives, sought alternative ways so that an event of these characteristics would not happen again. Education, culture, communication, thought in terms of peace and meeting, democracy and respect for the diversity of opinions, became agreed aspirations from the human feeling.
On the other hand, the Soviet educational and cultural experience, which in just decades had built a nation with the expansion of education and science, being a decisive factor in the defeat of fascism in Europe, made the aspiration a necessity of the States in order to overcome the difficult situation of post-war economies.
In this context, UNESCO is created, as a space to promote education, science, culture and communication, from a perspective of encounter and respect for Diversities. UNESCO was born as a progressive multilateral organization, in which all narratives could converge, favoring intercultural consensus. This idea germinated to such an extent that it became “common sense” to point out as a final point: “it is like that because UNESCO says so”.
However, with the arrival of the third industrial revolution, neoliberal globalization, the trend towards cultural globalization and the internationalization of capital, pressures on UNESCO increased to abandon its profile as a meeting space and become essentially a tool functional to the educational model required by the capitalist mode of production. The dismantling of the Soviet Union was the missing point, because it implied the suppression of a role that this multilateral organization had been fulfilling: to be a space for dialogue between the educational systems of capitalist countries and those of the so-called real socialism.
In recent years, UNESCO has begun to be permeated by managerialist logic in its leadership, the subordination of pedagogical agendas to the logic of the market and the dynamics of cognitive capitalism. In a text that we are working on, we will explain this process in detail.
There are three positions in the social movement regarding what is happening in UNESCO. The first, uncritically, posits that the multilateral organization is in a process of adaptation to the new realities of the 21st century. The second, recognizing that something very negative is happening inside UNESCO, privileges the debate «from within», avoiding public debate on the subject. The third, which considers it necessary to link up and strengthen the resistance that within UNESCO opposes the model of subordination to capital that the current leadership of the organization wants to impose, combining this work with the public activity of debate and denunciation together with the educational social movement , teacher and student union to build social fabric that serves as an international counterweight to this drift. From Otras Voces en Educaciòn we subscribe to the third of the perspectives.
Cognitive capitalism is expressed in proposals for education and school systems that develop the post-Fordist educational models that have prevailed since the 1970s. Cognitive capitalism is commodification, privatization, depedagogization and instrumentalization of teaching learning processes. Cognitive capitalism leverages advances in neuroscience and digital-virtual transformation to generate new forms of educational privatization that transfer economic and financial responsibilities from States to their citizens. Cognitive capitalism expresses itself in various ways. We will see some that are linked to higher education:
1. Place training linked to productivity in the first order. Thus, they emphasize technical-productive or technological careers with different arguments, some of which can be confusing because they are located on the thin line of the discourse of relevance put forward by political progressivism. The emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics/ in Spanish ciencia, tecnologìa, ingenierìa y matemàticas), promoted in primary and secondary education, becomes a path that guides its realization in the so-called priorities of higher education;
l The standardization of processes. Under the pretext of convergence
and compatibility of studies, systematic work has been carried out since the 1970s (third industrial revolution) and 1980s (neoliberal globalization) to make processes in higher education homogeneous. The rankings, the discourse of educational quality, relevance to local development and the impact on the world of work-employment, constitute some expressions of this dynamic;
l The discourse of inclusion linked to technological updating, in recent
years expressed in the narrative of the digital-virtual transformation of
l Curricular flexibility as a prelude to the attack on humanist content,
imposing a pragmatics of utility for the State in student learning;
∙lThe internationalization of education, as a process of cross-border
mobility that paves the way for the formation of global study centers, which dilute the notion of nation states. These global institutes, supported by the digital transformation, become training standardization initiatives, labor flexibility and rapid adaptation to market guidelines;
∙l The conformation of the concept of “responsible autonomy”. It seeks to erase the tradition of autonomy (plain), associated with academic freedom, self-definition of careers and government mechanisms, to travel the path of subordination to the conjunctural designs of governments and the market, where critical thinking passes to be conflictive for institutional empathy. The responsible surname that is intended to be placed on autonomy is linked to the lack of financing promoted by «self-management», turning universities into «entrepreneurship incubators» and
joint ventures, where the State is disappearing and the influence of the sector is strengthened by business and the market “Responsible” autonomy so that nothing stops insertion in the market;
∙lBuild an idea of international cooperation based on supply and demand.
The priority of knowledge generated by the university is now placed,
under cognitive capitalism, at the service of large corporations. To do
this, multilateralism promotes the discourse and practices of alternative
or complementary financing, which is nothing more than the key that
opens the door for big capital to enter the university world. State
disinvestment is a mechanism to promote this model of privatization and
l The construction of a scenario of convergence in the change of the
university model. The year 2030 is only a reference date to impose the agenda of capital in educational matters. This is what the World Bank, the OECD, the IDB, the World Economic Forum and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations system have been pointing out;
l The coaptation and/or promotion of a pedagogical social movement
tailored to the requirements of market-oriented educational reforms. To do this, they have built a network of philanthropy and financing institutions that subordinate the agendas of the educational social movement. There are civil society organizations that resist coaptation by working for increased financial autonomy, which should be the norm. We have been studying this dynamic of coaptation of the pedagogical social movement, which has steps: 1) before becoming part of any UNESCO mechanism, civil society organizations must seek financing linked to technology corporations or business philanthropy, 2) it is these instances that, after evaluating several periods of financing, endorse their incorporation into the participation mechanisms, 3) the civil society organizations subject to financing can disagree internally, but not make their differences public if they do not want their financing or belonging to these mechanisms is called into question, thus safeguarding that the drift of the multilateral organization is not known, 4) organizations financed and/or admitted to any UNESCO mechanism must participate in the SDG route, which implies start appropriating narratives, discourses and arguments to interpret what is educational.
If we are clear about some of the premises of cognitive capitalism, we can begin to establish cross-analyses, comparative studies (similarities and differences), regarding what is happening at the level of national educational systems, multilateralism and the World Conference on Higher Education itself (CMES in Spanish).
l The case of IESALC
The Institute of Higher Education for Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) is a high-level organization (type 1) of UNESCO. The antecedent of this organization was the Regional Center for Higher Education for Latin America and the Caribbean (CRESALC), which was created and functioned in Caracas as a forum for meeting and coordinating the common policies of the university sector. In practical terms, CRESALC became a meeting space for the different perspectives on the sector, for dialogue and for building consensus.
For this reason, since the eighties of the 20th century, specifically from the direction of the institute in the person of Juan Carlos Tedesco, a movement began to take shape to convert CRESALC into a UNESCO institute, which sought to promote a Latin American model and Caribbean institution of higher education, which traced innovative experiences in teaching, research and extension, while fulfilling its role as a sounding board for the guidelines of the parent multilateral organization: UNESCO.
It was assumed that if UNESCO was the expression of the global consensus that included all visions, this could materialize in a new model of institution built with consensus from below, whose dynamics would serve as a reference for the universities of Latin America and the Caribbean.
This movement to transform CRESALC expressed a participatory and proactive perspective of the region, which was understood as dialoguing among equals with an organization that convened everyone. It is noteworthy that, in this period, governments of different ideological signs pointed to this transformation, because they understood CRESALC as a space for meetings and consensus. The same thing happened with teachers’ associations and unions, with student federations and the
pedagogical social movement, which found in CRESALC an instance to mediate in the resolution of conflicts and the positioning of creative and proactive agendas, for whom its transformation could facilitate processes and organizational culture of encounter.
In the 1990s, diplomatic and social efforts multiplied to make CRESALC become IESALC. It was not a simple name change, but to qualify the effort of convergence and collective listening for the university transformation from the popular. The work of Federico Mayor Zaragoza, who was Director General of UNESCO, was essential in achieving this goal, whom we place as linked to multiple efforts of internal resistance in UNESCO, in the period of full neoliberal storm over the organization. In
1999, the creation of IESALC or the conversion of CRESALC into IESALC was approved.
Unfortunately, the creation of the institute coincides with the arrival of the business perspective to important management positions at UNESCO. Paris’ interest was no longer to build the work agenda in the university sector in a participatory way, but to work on standardization, internationalization, accreditation, rankings. However, directors of IESALC such as Francisco López Segrera navigated against the flow
and promoted spectacular editorial work and highly plural and meeting activities. The IESALC publications in this period show an attempt to continue working on the perspective of consensus and meeting.
The arrival at the direction of the institute of Claudio Rama, with the guidance of UNESCO Paris for that period, meant a 180 degree turn in the strategic horizon of the institute; The publishing house is eliminated and the printing press (one of the most modern in the region) is sold, the promotion of plural encounters is abandoned and the logic of the market is imposed as the basis of the definitions for higher education.
The period of Ana Lucia Gazzola was a moment of special participatory dynamism of the institute and of a Latin American integration perspective. This evidenced the uneven movement and differentiated responses to market tensions, on the part of both the institutions of Paris and the region.
With CEPES eliminated in Eastern Europe, the only twin brother of IESALC on a world scale, UNESCO begins to work to close IESALC. This corresponds to pressure from the World Bank to give it the leading role in formulating educational policies in the university sector. Paradoxically, months after the first World Conference on Higher Education (1998), which had prioritized quality and relevance as axes of the policy for the sector.
In this context, during the mandate of Irina Bokova at the head of UNESCO and Mr.Qian Tang at the general directorate of education, an attempt was made to close IESALC, suffocating it budgetarily and significantly reducing the number of assigned personnel and the allocated budget. . Between 2015 and 2017, the IESALC Governing Council (made up of representatives of the governments of the region), accompanied by the director of the institute for that period, Mr. Pedro Henríquez Guajardo, managed to avoid the administrative closure of IESALC, without managed to increase the volume of plant personnel to fulfill their tasks or the allocation of a fair budget. UNESCO’s economic crisis that began at the 36th General Conference with the withdrawal of contributions from the US and Israel were used as a pretext for these purposes.
IESALC’s situation was that of an institute diminished in its ability to generate initiatives, without the possibility of building a model of university institution, which, however, preserved the prestige built for decades, since CRESALC.
The appointment of the current director of IESALC marked a new stage in the situation of the institute. Their selection was made without the consultation or participation of any representative of the government of the host country (Venezuela). For the first time, the appointment of the director of IESALC by the Paris headquarters took place in the person of an official who did not belong to the region, who, although he has excellent credentials and experience in different responsibilities in UNESCO, his appointment was not the result of regional consensus. This could be seen by academic sectors in the region as a colonial act of UNESCO and, in practical terms, it has affected the organizational culture and relationship of Latin American universities with the institute. This dynamic may have impacted the convening process of the III World
Conference on Higher Education (WCHE).
In an absolutely colonialist line, UNESCO Paris set up a regional committee on the way to CMES, made up of the institute, the Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI), based in Europe, and the Ibero-American General Secretariat based in Spain, to which would be added by the IDB (no one from Latin America and the Caribbean).
IESALC would then announce on its website that “the Conference would be organized by UNESCO in close collaboration with the Spanish government, the Generalitat de Catalunya, the City Council and the Diputación de Barcelona, and in alliance with GUNi/ACUP (Global University Network for Innovation / Catalan Association of Public Universities)”. Not a single organization from Latin America
and the Caribbean, the seat region of the only UNESCO multilateral organization for Higher Education (IESALC-Unesco).
This situation is typical of a political operation, which seeks to ignore the regional actors of higher education, create other instances of dialogue and mediation «tailored» to UNESCO, which constitutes a colonialist act that the region is not willing to accept.
l The World Conference on Higher Education
The III World Conference on Higher Education (WCHE) has been convened by UNESCO for Barcelona from May 18 to 20, 2022. It takes place every ten years and should be preceded by regional conferences. The most recent process of regional dialogue on university education was held in June 2018, in Córdoba, Argentina, under the name of Regional Conference on Higher Education (CRES2018). This high regional conference ratified the defense of public university education, however, it was impossible for it to analyze in depth the impact on the university world, what would happen in the years 2020, 2021 and part of 2022.
As expressed by the UNESCO (2021), the COVID-19 pandemic and the acceleration of innovation make it necessary to update topics addressed in the CRES. For this reason, it was necessary to open a consultative process after CRES2018 and prior to CMES, which did not occur. Consequently, the CMES Convocation emerges as an attempt by UNESCO to set “its agenda” without the “disruption” of regional debates.
The agenda presented by UNESCO (2022), for the World Conference on Higher Education is:
1. Higher Education and the SDGs, that is, standardization of higher education and alignment with the so-called Total University Quality Management (GCT-U) on which we have written in other papers;
l Production of Data and Knowledge, oriented to the development of global quality standards, that is, more standardization, typical of post-Fordist models of education;
l Inclusion in higher education, which although they are presented with the slogan of «leaving no one without access to education» they do not address the new forms of exclusion generated by the abandonment of the national States of their obligations to guarantee the minimum conditions for learning, in an increasingly digital education. In the last two years, families, students and teachers have had to cover the abandonment of this State responsibility, acquiring computer equipment, paying software for conferences (not pedagogical) and internet costs. This does not appear as a demand, in the synthesis released as an agenda, nor does the democratic demand for free internet and universal access;
l Quality and relevance of the programs, expressed in curricular flexibility and assurance of educational quality, that is, educational openness to corporate agendas. This is aimed at strengthening the evaluative culture of programs to allow their permanence in the accreditation and justification processes to close careers that do not respond to the demands of the current market;
l Academic mobility in higher education, with the construction of global teaching fields, which aim to materialize proposals from technology corporations, including the educational metaverse, which violates national sovereignty, makes the teaching profession more flexible and constitutes an attack on the educational contextualization;
l Governance of higher education, with an emphasis on issues such as autonomy, accountability and responsiveness to market demands;
lFinancing of higher education, focused on seeking different sources of financing, which is nothing other than the neoliberal aspiration to reduce the influence of the State in educational financing, opening the way to private capital that conditions the contribution of capital to training for the market through flexible curricula;
l Impact of COVID-19 on higher education that intend to guide the debate towards the digital transformation of higher education, based on the merchandise of transnational technological capital;
lInternational cooperation to improve synergies, which is the way to present the link between the corporate business sector and education, with the premise that if they contribute money they have the right to ask for adjustments in higher education, or as they would say in my town “who puts money asks for the music that sounds at the party”. Some examples of these groups that set agendas, ministers of education and representatives of multilateralism, are Mexicanos Primero, Empresarios por Colombia or Red Educa, to name just a few;
l Preparing for the future of higher education, which places the year
2030 as a disruptive scenario for higher education, something that we have been denouncing and explaining in texts such as the bursting of the educational bubble in the 2030;
The «controlled» participation that did not threaten the key points of the agenda was presented as a limited consultation, whose implementation occurred between December 2021 and February 2022, which was limited to:
1.-Register for the webinars prepared around the ten priority topics of the conference, with the purpose of taking possession of the issues and building hegemony, not to include perspectives;
l Call to send opinions and/or share experiences on any of the topics with
the purpose of supporting the pre-prepared agenda without consultation;
l Organize the events themselves, limited to the topics on the agenda. In
fact, Otras Voces en Educaciòn has organized dozens of participatory events with the purpose of opening the agenda to teaching work issues and curbing the neo-privatization models opened with the pandemic and virtuality, but they have not had the opportunity to be inserted because the agenda of the World Conference on Higher Education is closed.
In other words, the so-called participation became a pantomime to try to legitimize already decided issues. It is like a controlled release, with no real impact on the final documents, unless they are examples or experiences that confirm the imposed narratives.
Despite the fact that IESALC-UNESCO proposed in 2021:
“As part of the events prior to the Third World Conference on Higher Education of UNESCO that will take place in Barcelona from May 18 to 20, 2022, UNESCO-IESALC will carry out a specific consultation for Latin America and the Caribbean that will collect the voices of the different interest groups related to higher education (HEI leaders, academics, students, governments, rectors’ conferences, associations/networks of universities, employers, multilateral organizations, etc. ) on ten key topics of higher education”.
This was done only in appearance, since Latin American instances were never consulted to prepare the agenda and, when some forums were held, some voices were selected to contribute elements to the already prepared agenda.
Even in this limited opening, representative instances of the diversity of regional points of view were not convened, such as the CIN of Argentina, which brings together the rectors of that country, the Kairos Foundation, the UDUAL, which brings together rectors and academics, Otras Voces en Educación which is today an important center of reference for debate, nor unions in the university sector such as the Association of Professors of the University of Puerto Rico, the Association of Professors of the Republic of Panama, the National Union of University Education
(SINDEU) of Costa Rica, the Association of University Professors of Colombia (APUC), the Federation of University Workers of Venezuela (FTUV) or the Association of University Professors of Venezuela (APUV), the National Association of Higher Education Teaching (ANDES) of Brazil, the Association of University Professionals of Chile, the CONADU-historical of Argentina, the Intergremial Association of Uruguay, the Intersindical of Valencia, or the university unions linked to the Spanish CGT in Barcelona itself, headquarters of the CMES. Much less was
the Caribbean and Latin American Student Organization (OCLAE) or the National Student Association (ANE) of Brazil convened, to cite just a few examples.
When the absence of key actors in the “consultation” was questioned, UNESCO changed its narrative saying that this route was not consultative. Consequently, the path to WCES has the following problems:
- The agenda was prepared without the participation of regional academic actors,much less national ones;
l The host country of IESALC, Venezuela, was not invited to prepare
the agenda, but rather to participate in an already prepared
lThe organizing committee does not have actors or organizations that
enjoy the consensus of all the key university actors;
lOnly generic names of the agenda were disclosed and only two
months after WCHE, the base documents of WCHE have not been circulated; Nor were the regional representative organizations consulted about candidates to integrate the commissions that make up the preparation of the documents;
l Faced with repeated requests to open the organizing committee and the agenda, IESALC responds that this is a decision of UNESCO Paris, and this last instance does not respond to requests in this regard;
l Faced with pressure, UNESCO changed the initial format from a type 1
Intergovernmental Conference made up of government representatives, to a type 4 Conference made up of experts, who prepare documents to present to governments. This implied a change in conceptualization, which was only announced in February 2022, without indicating which the democratic and participatory mechanism was to convene the experts. We imagine that it is the same scheme of business notables that UNESCO has promoted in the last two years, presenting them as “those who know”
l Governments should manage their participation (listeners? Opinions
makers of experts’ ideas?) before UNESCO’s national offices;
l Efforts made, through different channels and mechanisms, before
UNESCO, have been ignored, with the arrogance of the business community that despises the opinion of the academy, its organizations and regional instances;
l Barcelona and the CMES appear as a global public turning point, with
the decline of the plural and consensual role of this organization, whose shock wave triggered by UNESCO itself tends to affect not only the role of the organization but also the correlations of forces existing in favor of public, popular, democratic, face-to-face and inclusive education;
l The alternative movement is still willing to avoid this situation, but it seems that the refusal of the multilateral organization is not due to the stubbornness of some officials, but because the collapse of UNESCO is sought to allow the open entrance of the World Bank as the epicenter of the agenda of higher education world;
l UNESCO and the discourse of the “savage” who does not
understand the civilized one.
Faced with the questioning of the social movement about the exclusionary route, designed and implemented by UNESCO, this instance intends to install the narrative that those of us who question “do not understand that this is not a consultative conference”, a speech that reminds us of the old speeches of the “wise colonists”, about the “good revolutionary who understands what the colonists tell him” and “the savage who does not understand the civilized and chaotizes the world”.
At a historical moment in which the peoples demand open models of dialogue, interactive agendas, consultative spaces and participation at all moments of the decision-making processes, UNESCO intends to set itself up as a body that protects participation, deciding at what moment speak, listen or raise one’s hand, en route to the World Conference on Higher Education (WCHE).
Therefore, they try to install the narrative that academics in the region «do not understand.» Of course, we understand the strategic orientation of the mute democracy model that UNESCO intends to install and we value it as an attempt to impose agendas aligned with the models of educational commodification that are promoted by large corporations; if the teachers’ associations and unions, the organizations of rectors, the student federations, the research centers and the academic world are removed, but the doors are opened wide for «the notables» of the companies, everything remains sure. What UNESCO calls not «understanding» is not
accepting or being an accomplice in a capitulation to the private sector, covered by the blackmail of the supposed neutrality of the organization.
Likewise, they have been pointing out that «participation will come after» the World Conference on Higher Education. In other words, “they will let us” think and talk to explore mechanisms on how to implement what is agreed at CMES. That is, participation restricted to getting on the bandwagon of policies approved with the consent of corporations, capital and the so-called development banks.
We greatly regret this situation and we will respond from the patience of the social movement that builds an alternative social fabric from cognitive sovereignty.
l What to do?
The social movement cannot despair, but neither can it stop doing what it is doing. Therefore, the strategy has to be multilevel.
Civil society organizations that are part of UNESCO’s governance mechanisms and that receive funding from some instance of this multilateral organization or philanthropy, must continue to articulate with dissenting voices within UNESCO, developing a model of resistance from the inside, taking possession of issues and trying to open agendas; its role is of vital importance in the current situation. It is recommended that they work on financing alternatives that avoid dependency on corporate philanthropy to prevent financial support from generating conditions sooner rather than later.
International organizations that are financially autonomous, but are part of world political expressions such as social democracy, Christian democracy or liberalism also express, in some cases, national resistance processes that can be an important factor of alliance. Unfortunately, UNESCO has not recognized teachers’ union currents of anti-capitalist inspiration, which is explained by the inter-governmental nature of its governing bodies.
Precisely, the forces in defense of public education, which fight against commodification and the different forms of privatization, must promote a greater international articulation to confront the neoliberal drift of UNESCO. Barcelona 2022, the scene of WCHE, must highlight this need.
Finally, the academic and university research sector has the task of studying, understanding and communicating the causes and the fabric of relationships that have led UNESCO to this terrible situation of disconnection with the alternative social movement, something that could be the prelude to a definitive surrender to the logic of capital.
We are in the main objective of defending the right to public, face-to-face, scientific, popular and transformative education.
English Version: Celina Castro Jaimes
Bonilla-Molina, Luis (2022) Notas sobre la UNESCO. Texto en edición
Bonilla-Molina, Luis (2021) El estallido de la burbuja educativa: la madre de las batallas en defensa de la educación pública. Disponible enhttps://luisbonillamolina.com/2021/12/12/el-estallido-de-la-burbuja-educativa-la-madre-de-las-batallas-en-defensa-de-la-educacion-presencial/
UNESCO (2015) Documentos fundamentales. Ediciones Unesco Paris
UNESCO(2021)  https://www.iesalc.unesco.org/2021/08/02/mayo2022-iii-conferencia-mundial-de-educacion-superior-whec/
UNESCO (2022) https://www.iesalc.unesco.org/consulta-de-lac-para-la-conferencia-mundial-de-educacion-superior-de-la-unesco/