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Monday, June 21, 2021

China and the future of UNESCO’s curriculum framing body

Europe is against locating the UN agency’s International Bureau of Education at Shanghai. But Chinese funds and expertise can rejuvenate the cash-strapped agency. The move could also benefit India.

Written by Anamika |
Updated: May 30, 2021 1:14:00 pm
Most countries recognise that curriculum is a potent instrument for propagating ideologies and programmes through textbooks and other reading material. (UNESCO)

Curriculum is an all-encompassing concept that includes syllabi, textbooks, reading material, and all the planned and non-planned co-curricular activities to develop knowledge, understanding, attitudes and values. It throws light on education’s links with the country’s developmental goals. NEP 2020 set into motion process of curricular changes in India Worldwide, the work of framing curriculum gets supported through advance research conducted by UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education (IBE). The mandate of IBE is to develop curriculum and build capacity in curriculum and pedagogy.

Established in 1925 in Geneva by Swiss educators, the IBE leads global dialogue on innovation in curriculum and learning, ensures the relevance of curriculum for national, regional, and global contexts and challenges, and builds capacity of the member states in the area of curriculum and pedagogy. From a private institution, it has become an integral part of UNESCO. The institution reached its highpoint in 2011 when it was declared a Global Centre of Excellence in curriculum and related matters by the 36th General Conference of UNESCO. However, politics cast a shadow on the progress of the IBE in 2017 when the US and Israel decided to leave UNESCO. The US had already stopped funding UNESCO in 2011 after full membership was granted to Palestine. The IBE is currently going through an existential crisis. In 2018, budgetary crunch compelled UNESCO to explore avenues to safeguard the future of the IBE. Three options emerged: One, the IBE to stay in Switzerland with a new work charge and broader remit; two, to integrate into the education sector at the headquarters in Paris; and three, to relocate to a new host country and continue to work with curriculum. There is a consensus among UNESCO’s member states of keeping the IBE’s mandate intact, as it is the only institution in the world dedicated to the advancement of research in curriculum.

This writer got an exclusive opportunity to attend the 40th General Conference in November 2019 and witnessed the debate on the future of IBE. China proposed to host the IBE at Shanghai with changes in curricula. The proposal was opposed by European countries, and the issue remained unresolved. In June 2020, China modified the proposal and suggested a new model of “one institute with two locations”, namely Geneva and Shanghai. According to the note submitted by China, the Shanghai IBE would offer a platform to focus on issues of “dialogue on education policy, comparative education research, research on policies and innovative practices in education reforms in different countries. The new IBE would also act as a centre of excellence of capacity building and a data hub on research in education.” The proposal came with a guaranteed sum of US $1 million for lease purposes and up to $7 million per year for the daily functioning of the IBE at Shanghai. The IBE in Shanghai would mean a new centre for international education in Asia capable of adding fresh information, ideas and insights to the processes of curriculum, pedagogy and capacity building.

The future of IBE at Geneva is being discussed in the 211th Executive Board Meeting of UNESCO. In this context, the following questions are relevant for educationists and policy makers: Why is China keen to relocate the existing IBE or establish a new IBE at Shanghai? Why are European countries opposing it? What should India’s stand be on the issue?

Most countries recognise that curriculum is a potent instrument for propagating ideologies and programmes through textbooks and other reading material. Building capacity of future teachers and in-service teachers is yet another means for shaping and influencing opinions. By relocating the IBE in Shanghai, China would ensure subtle integration of values, ethos, and ideology that best suits the interest of the country and its regime. With massive resources at its disposal, China could offer textbooks and supplementary reading material to developing countries for free. It could arrange for capacity building of teachers from developing countries at the IBE in Shanghai also at no cost. By doing so, China would be able to create a long-term soft-power base in the international arena. The IBE at Shanghai could give China an upper hand in determining and shaping the direction of education policies, especially in Asia and Africa.

In the past few decades, China has ensured its presence in all the organs of the United Nations including UNESCO. The prospect of intensification of China’s sphere of influence through the control of IBE makes European countries extremely wary of the proposal.

The hallmark of the 21st century is knowledge society based on intellectual capital. In knowledge societies and economies, power rests with those controlling the creation, access and transfer of knowledge. The immediate and long-term concern of China is to become a formidable knowledge economy and society. The quest for it began in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and culminated in the establishment of Academic Ranking of World Universities famously known as the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Ranking.

The leadership of UNESCO is well recognised in the arena of ideas and knowledge, and the IBE provides intellectual leadership along with knowledge creation and management. The IBE in Shanghai would certainly raise the status of China as a lead centre of knowledge creation. The realisation of the Chinese dream of becoming a knowledge power would further strengthen its control over knowledge creation and the West is fearful of that.

India faces the dilemma of opposing China’s proposal or extending support to it. Opposition would strain the relations between the two countries, while support would soften the antagonism. While supporting China, India has an advantage in the form of Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP), the first and only Category I Institute of UNESCO in the Asia-Pacific. The mandate of MGIEP is school education and it can extend support to the IBE at Shanghai in developing the curriculum for peace as one of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the UN. SDG-4 talks about access to inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. It’s another area where India can work with the IBE at Shanghai. Delhi can offer the secondment of Indian intelligentsia, teachers, and other professionals to ensure India’s presence in future endeavours of the IBE in Asia. The National Commission for Cooperation with UNESCO (INCCU) at the Ministry of Education has a rich and long experience in the area of secondment. The INCCU can take a lead and facilitate cooperation with the IBE at Shanghai. China’s financial resources and India’s human resources can match to fulfil IBE’s mandate.

The writer is Deputy Adviser, Unit for International Cooperation, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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