Futuro de la universidad en el cambio local y global
Octubre 1, 2022

A meeting with a premise: Universities as change agents

The relevance and value of higher education in future society will be discussed at the International Association of Universities’ (IAU’s) 16th quadrennial General Conference in Dublin, Ireland, from 25-28 October.

At the heart of each question the conference will deal with is the belief that universities are vital agents of change that have the ability – indeed, the moral duty – to shape local and global agendas.

For instance, the sessions include “From Science to Society: How to reach out beyond the academic circle and unlock the sciences”, “Forming a Reliable Social Contract with Civil Society: Putting fundamental values into practice” and “Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development: What is the role for university leadership”.

“The International Association of Universities is the only global association that brings higher education leaders from around the world together to discuss key issues that will help reshape the higher education sector in order to better serve society,” says Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of IAU, who has worked for the Paris-based organisation headquartered at UNESCO for over two decades.

“We bring together leaders from five continents on matters ranging from the management of universities, value-based education, the future of internationalisation, sustainable development, and how universities have engaged with the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.”

University World News is the media partner for the conference, which was originally due to take place in 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Readers can register to participate here.

First proposed in the 1930s, the IAU was founded in 1950 in the same global spirit as the founding of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank established at a Bretton Woods conference in New Hampshire (US) in 1944 and the United Nations (1945).

According to its constitution, the IAU’s aim is to “provide a centre of cooperation at the international level among the universities and similar institutions of higher education of all countries, as well as among organisations in the field of higher education generally, and to advocate for their concerns”.

Over-emphasis on STEM

Among the threats Van’t Land sees to higher education – and which will be addressed in sessions such as “Skills, Competencies and Knowledge for Unwritten Futures: Where do we go from here?” at which one presenter will be Hassan Rashid Al-Derham, president of Qatar University – are the overemphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programmes and the commodification of education in a sector that is increasingly privatised.

The two are intrinsically interlinked, she says, because both view the purpose of higher education as being about producing employees rather than educated, critically thinking citizens of the world.

When I brought up a recent spate of articles in the United States showing that almost 50% of humanities graduates regret studying the humanities and the fact that the recent study, Economic Well-Being of US Households in 2021 by the US Federal Reserve Board, did not take into account the high employment rates of these graduates, Van’t Land said the IAU has spent decades trying to counter the argument that STEM programmes are the only ones that produce value.

“Science, technology, engineering, maths are all technical aspects of what makes the life of a business. But is life all about that? No, it’s not. And, also, business itself is not made up of STEM people and STEM approaches to reality,” she says.

In place of STEM, she calls for ESTEAM – education, science, technology, arts and maths – education. “If we want to move into the future with the kind of citizens that have an appreciation for diversity and appreciation for connecting the unconnected, for innovating and appreciating how we want to actually address the global challenges we face, we have a unique opportunity to educate students as critical thinkers and engaged citizens,” says Van’t Land.

The corporatisation of higher education includes the growth of private for-profit colleges and universities, of which, for example, there are more than 1,600 in the United States, and nearly 15 million of India’s university student population of 35 million attend private higher education institutions.

Recognising that some of these private for-profit schools preyed on poor students in the US, in many cases minority students, unable to access other schools, the US has cancelled billions of dollars in debt these students ran up attending these schools, some of which went bankrupt before students could graduate.

“I don’t believe that private for-profit higher education is a model that will help any of us,” Van’t Land told University World News. “

António Nóvoa, one of the major authors of the 2021 UNESCO report, Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education, stressed that universities are institutions unlike any other. Their strength and usefulness lie precisely in this difference. The day they lose their specificity, allowing themselves to be governed by market rules or commodification trends, they will become useless.

“The IAU is challenging models that would favour private for-profit institutions. They divert universities from their primary vision and mission, and tailor what they do to ‘clients’ rather than to students – clients who then become the ‘boss’ and decide on what to study and how, while they do not always know what they may need to be exposed to in order to develop the kind of knowledge and education they actually need to move into the future.”

The corporatisation of higher education can also be seen, we discussed, even within the publicly funded sphere. This comes with the erosion of academic freedom and university autonomy, essential values to develop quality higher education, free from political and economic interference.

For example, just a few days ago, Jason Kenney, the outgoing premier of the province of Alberta, Canada, appointed a commission of business leaders in agriculture, banking, construction, tourism and, most importantly given the central role the oil industry plays in Alberta’s economy, energy, to advise on how to restructure Alberta’s higher education sector and course offerings.

While making the announcement, Kenney, referencing the news reports from the US about humanities graduates’ regrets, attacked liberal arts programmes saying they produced only “modest” or “very poor” employment outcomes. Publicly funded higher education should, he said, align itself with labour market demands, chiefly the extraction of oil from the tar sands where 1.7 trillion barrels of heavy oil is mixed with sand.

“It’s incredibly sad to see Alberta go in this direction. Tar sand companies’ interests and corporate interests at large should not play a role in how universities are governed. Today, we need new energy sources to respond to the many needs of the world and we need these now.

“So why not use the fact that fossil fuels are becoming rare and that their use is detrimental to the planet to reinvent ourselves before it’s too late. This short-sighted vision of certain companies should not define where we are allowed to go in education. It is just unbelievable when they do so,” says Van’t Land.

Leadership for sustainability

The final session of the conference, “Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development – What is the role for university leadership”, is of especial import. The session will include presentations by Sandra Guarín Tarquino, director of the International Office at Antonio Nariño University in Colombia, and Pornchai Mongkhonvanit, president of Siam University, Thailand.

To help universities engage more fully with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015 and which are to be fulfilled in just over seven years, the IAU has developed a global cluster on higher education and research that pushes universities in different parts of the world to focus on the SDGs.

In India, Assam Don Bosco University in Guwahati, Assam, is leading work on SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy). The University of Bergen in Norway and the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, are fully engaged with SDG 14 (Life below water) and SDG 13 (Climate action). The IAU has initiated a series of publications on how universities can engage with each of the SDGs in such a way as to connect across the spectrum of the 17 SDGs.

“Each of these universities develops a sub-cluster of universities from all world regions which work together in teaching and learning, in research and community engagement as well as in campus living. The goal is to have very different kinds of universities from different countries and world regions work together in different ways to address the challenges before us,” says Van’t Land.

The issue of Ukraine

Russia’s war against Ukraine is not far from mind.

It’s not only the war’s destruction of Ukrainian universities and what Van’t Land called the political, economic and cultural ripple effects that will last long into the future.

In the spirit of its founding charter, the IAU members have supported Ukrainian universities by arranging for free tuition at universities outside the country. Information has been sent to Ukrainian universities and a key paper on the situation in Ukraine will be published in the inaugural issue of IAU Horizons to be launched in Dublin. A number of Ukrainian professors and administrators plan on attending the IAU General Conference.

The war – in which Russia has targeted a number of universities with missile attacks and in which it has undertaken to Russify universities in occupied areas of Ukraine – has disrupted the IAU’s seven decades of what might be called université détente.

An anecdote Van’t Land told me about the 2008 meeting in Utrecht in the Netherlands exemplifies this: without realising what the others had done, at a smorgasbord meal, delegates from Israel, Iran, Palestine and Lebanon, each put their bags down on chairs around the same table. When they returned to the table with plates laden with food, they had little choice but to sit down and begin to eat together.

“They didn’t talk, but they sat at the same table. Maybe it was the start of something,” says Van’t Land.

The IAU has not expelled Russian members, though Van’t Land stressed that “it’s been very sad to see how many of the long-time members of the IAU signed the [public] letter that supports the war effort and which also pledged allegiance to the government” of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The IAU believes that it should keep open doors. Van’t Land answered a simple “No” when I asked if she expects any Russian academicians to attend the conference.

The agon of Ukrainian universities, professors, administrators and staff should not, Van’t Land cautioned, obscure other areas of the globe where universities and the free exchange of ideas are in danger. She pointed to Afghanistan and Venezuela as well as to European countries where “the autonomy of universities is being questioned or even attacked by the governments under which they are operating”, the most obvious being in Hungary and Turkey.

Perhaps for the first time since the founding of the IAU, its secretary general added both the United States and Canada to the list of countries where the humanities are being questioned.

She singled out Florida as one of the states where efforts to restrict what can be taught in university classrooms is well underway. For example, under Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida has banned the teaching of critical race theory, significantly weakened tenure and instituted surveys of students’ and professors’ political opinions and affiliations.

“This news comes from countries where it’s unexpected that such behaviour would ever, ever be a reality,” Van’t Land says in a tone of resigned sorrow.

Fostering civic engagement

Several times during our discussion, Van’t Land spoke of the role universities have in fostering civic engagement and voting in particular.

For example, after pointing out the short sightedness of Albertans who ignore the fact that oil’s days are numbered, she said: “What we can do, is educate new kinds of leaders who will challenge the people who make these laws”, and underscored the importance of students voting. “They have to take part in public life and become active citizens. They have to see the relevance of becoming voters.”

When I asked about attendees who come from authoritarian countries and how they fit into the IAU’s democratic ethos, she told me that while the idea that the IAU would be independent of politics was an aspirational goal, everyone recognised that it was not.

In an attempt to create the space required for the free flow of ideas, the IAU has its members sign a code of ethics and, thereby, sign on to a series of values. Drawn from the Magna Charta Universitatum, which, coincidentally, held its anniversary meeting last week, the values include connection, ethics, integrity, university autonomy, respect and the value of openness.

(The session on the Magna Charta Universitatum will feature presentations by Patrick Deane, the principal of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and Astrid Söderbergh Widding, president of Stockholm University, Sweden.)

“We’ve seen members of staff [from different countries] and leadership change over time, due to the fact that they are involved in the IAU family and are working with us. I am confident that the leaders – within, of course, the limitations of their own spheres of influence – can take little baby steps, and sometimes leapfrog into the future of transformation,” says Van’t Land.

This article is published in partnership with the International Association of Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.


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