Updated Magna Charta marks shift in universities’ thinking
The signing was witnessed by more than 150 presidents and rectors of universities globally and brought the total number of Magna Charta signatories to 965 universities worldwide.
As the first universities to sign the 2020 version in person – due to previous meetings being postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic – the ceremony had additional symbolic value as the first public event to mark an important shift in universities’ thinking about why they exist.
David Lock, secretary general of the Magna Charta Observatory (MCO), told the audience that the MCU was originally signed by 388 rectors in 1988 on the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna and the text reflected the fundamental values of the university tradition.
The initiative was in effect a predecessor movement to the European University Association. As hope emerged, during the latter days of the Cold War, of Europe reuniting, rectors thought there was a need for a strong statement on what science and higher education needed: autonomy, academic freedom, a space of toleration and protection by governments.
By 2020 the Magna Charta had supporters not just in Europe but globally. Universities had become more important but also more threatened, and the document was revised to reflect changes in society and the recognition that universities needed to take action to address them. The new text recognises that universities have to become responsive and take on responsibilities, but need academic freedom and autonomy as a precondition for fulfilling their role in society.
The new text says, for instance: “Universities acknowledge that they have a responsibility to engage with and respond to the aspirations and challenges of the world and to the communities they serve to benefit humanity and contribute to sustainability.”
President of MCO’s Governing Council Patrick Deane said: “By signing MCO2020, universities declare their commitment to the original declaration and to upholding the principles, values and responsibilities laid out in the document to strengthen the role of universities in promoting health, prosperity and enlightenment around the world. It is a very noble mission.”
What are universities good for?
Chris Brink, former vice-chancellor of both Newcastle University, UK, and Stellenbosch University, South Africa, said universities are very good at saying what they are good at but much less fluent at saying what they are good for.
He explained that it used to be the case that academics believed their job was to produce knowledge and disseminate it and do that well, believing that at some point the reproduction of knowledge would benefit society. Over time the importance of universities’ ‘third mission’, the importance of engagement and assessment of impact, became part of the agenda and the question raised was not just how good research was, for instance, but what difference it made.
Change in universities’ understanding
“The change in our understanding, [realising] that the ‘What are we good for?’ question is just as important as the ‘What are we good at?’ question, is neatly captured in MC2020,” Brink said.
The signing came on the third day of the MCO’s anniversary conference, which was held on the theme of “Universities engaging with society in turbulent times.” University World Newswas the media partner.
The procession was led by the senate and board of governors of the University of Bologna – a university of symbolic importance, having been established by the democratic vote among student networks for the first rector, centuries before meaningful political democracy was established in Europe.
Key goals to pursue
Magnificent Rector of the University of Bologna Giovanni Molari, who is also a professor in agricultural machinery and mechanisation, said: “The pandemic itself and its consequences, ongoing conflicts and the [changing] international equilibrium, climate change, scarcity of natural resources and migrations are some of the main challenges universities are being called to address.
“They need to do so with awareness of the importance of their role and responsibilities that come with it. Progress in understanding our planet and lives and promotion of cultures are the key goals universities pursue.
“They do so in a global scenario and for the common good, reaching out to society locally and globally. Universities advance freedom. Scientific knowledge and culture provide key toolboxes to understand reality and as a consequence act responsibly on it,” Molari said.
“As stated in the Magna Charta, freedom in research and training is the fundamental principle of university life. Governments and universities must ensure respect for this fundamental requirement.
“Intellectual and moral autonomy is a hallmark of any university and precondition of fulfilling its responsibilities to society,” he argued.
Universities’ strategic position in society
Stefania Giannini, UNESCO assistant director-general for education and former minister of higher education, universities and research in Italy, said: “The theme of today’s anniversary goes to the heart of the challenges facing universities and entire society today. Universities actually hold a strategic position in society but are they fully oriented towards charting a more sustainable inclusive course for the future? This is the main question we have to put on the table.
“What will it take for them to adapt to our troubled times once peace is increasingly fragile, where climate change is wreaking havoc, where the digital revolution challenges the very notion of our humanity?”
A global dialogue on this question was kickstarted by the World Higher Education Conference 2022 hosted by UNESCO in Barcelona in May (for which University World News was the sole media partner). It was about “charting a new vision, a new approach for tertiary education in the decade ahead, one that takes on board pressure to democratise access and to gear learning to the interconnected challenges of sustainable development”.
Reimagining higher education for sustainability
A road map was agreed upon by all participants, a “living document, nourished by research and wide consultation”, Giannini said. It sets out six critical transitions to imagining higher education for a more sustainable and equitable future.
“Our first responsibility is to every learner: to fulfil the right to education and consider that higher education is part of that right and a public good, and not a luxury at the end of the process of secondary education.
“Secondly, the road map recommends moving to a more holistic student learning that can foster democratic values and civic engagement and not be solely focused on professional training. More than ever society needs this kind of approach.
“Thirdly, to respond to the complexity of current times, study programmes need a transition from disciplinary silos to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary models, encouraging open access to science and knowledge.
“Fourth, it is about responding to rapid change and the need to reskill throughout life. Higher education should transition towards more of a life-long learning model which means an internal process of readjusting, reorganising the way universities provide training and courses.
“Fifth, there is no one-size-fits-all. Institutions today need to enlarge education opportunities for youth and wider recognition mechanisms.
“Finally, pedagogical practices must be renewed and technology put in service of richer learning experiences, teaching and research … Technology [must be] at the centre of a humanised and human-oriented approach.”
Brave approach needed
Giannini said this is a vision that requires a brave approach, a shift in mindsets and policies, to favour cooperation over competition, to favour diversity over uniformity, to favour flexible learning pathways over traditional structured ones, and most importantly to open the system, offering openness over existing and traditional viewpoints.
“I see the Magna Charta as a powerful community to open up higher education to society, to nurture civic engagement and to better connect research and policy for the common good,” she said.
The signatories to the Magna Charta become members of the Observatory Magna Charta Universitatum, an independent signatories’ association, which undertakes its work to ensure the integrity of intellectual and scientific work in institutions and society, thus reinforcing trust in relationships between universities and their communities, be they local, regional, national or global.
The newly signed-up institutions include some from countries where higher education is under political attack from authoritarianism, such as Hungary’s Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Turkey’s Lokman Hekim University, TED University and Yeditepe University, and Uzbekistan’s Tashkent State University of Law.
Others are in a country facing military attack from an authoritarian regime: Ukraine’s Lutsk National Technical University and Sumy National Agrarian University.
In the name of the new signatories, Professor Hanne Solheim Hansen, rector of Nord Universitet, Norway, addressed the gathering. She applauded the efforts to keep the principles and values updated in accordance with the development of society.
“Academic freedom cannot be taken for granted, not even today. Academic freedom and freedom of speech and fact-based decisions and discussions are a threat to the people in power in authoritarian societies. Democracies, freedom of speech and academic freedom are related and each of those values can hardly stand alone,” she said.
“All of us signing the declaration today have promised to strengthen the role of each university in preserving the planet, and promoting health and enlightenment.”