GLOBAL: Universities must be citadels not silos

Universities must be "citadels not silos", defending communities around them rather than being inward-looking, if they are to actively advance global development goals, the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference heard in Cape Town last week.

Vice-chancellors were urged to support individuals in universities who wanted to work on the Millennium Development Goals - the theme of the association's conference of executive heads held from 25-27 April - for instance by providing concrete assurances that this would not wreck their academic careers.

A conflicting picture of universities and the MDGs emerged from the conference.

It became clear that institutions across the Commonwealth were involved in a great variety of teaching, research and outreach work that supported the goals, directly or indirectly. These ranged from student doctors treating poor people in clinics and academics mediating conflicts to high-level inputs into regional development policies.

But these efforts were generally not driven by coherent university strategies around the MDGs, they were often little recognised by governments and other development actors, and universities were not collaborating effectively to maximise the impacts of their MDG work, delegates heard.

Professor David Hulme, of the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester, provided one example of lack of recognition of development-supporting work done by higher education: universities were hardly mentioned in a book he had written on global poverty.

"Maybe it is because they operate at the second level. But maybe universities haven't thought about the MDGs enough. Often academics see the goals as a technical list. Also, universities have been extremely weak about raising the unheard voices of the poor."

Hulme called on academics and universities to give more attention to how to turn ideas into concrete actions, and how to balance the drive to identify what must be done with analysis and action on how this could be done.

One question was whether universities would give academics space to think about social justice, "or whether they just go where the money is - and there is not much money spent on research into developing country problems".

Professor John Tarrant, ACU Secretary General, said the conference had uncovered two very important issues to think further about.

The first was how the association might facilitate taking forward the MDG agenda and help to reconstruct universities in post-conflict situations, such as those in Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Sri Lanka that were described at the conference.

The second was how to pick up an idea articulated by Professor Brian O'Connell, Vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, of universities as citadels not silos: "The ACU gives universities across the Commonwealth opportunities to strengthen the foundations and fortifications of the citadel of higher education," he said.

Vice-chancellors suggested that national and regional higher education associations, such as Universities UK and the Association of African Universities, should be the starting point for collaboration between universities in support of the MDGs.

These efforts could be collated and encouraged by the ACU. One participant suggested that the association create an inventory of the contributions its more 508 members universities make towards advancing global development goals and towards conflict resolution.

Tarrant told the more than 120 university leaders from 35 Commonwealth countries gathered in Cape Town that one of the ways they could contribute directly was to give institutional backing to individuals who wanted to help support the MDGs in a range of different ways.

For instance, many academics in the rich world were part of the brain drain from developing countries. Vice-chancellors could promote an environment that made it possible for them - and other academics - to assist the countries they came from, not only involving travel but in a multitude of different ways. "Vice-chancellors can provide them with job security."

Professor John Akker, Executive Secretary of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, said there were remarkable numbers of academics who had left university systems because of conflict and other difficulties.

He proposed a task force be created to examine in detail some of the practical issues that arise and to make recommendations on ways to get talented academics in the diaspora to either travel back to assist in their countries or help from the outside, "to give dimension and hope to the reconstruction and development of those university systems".

Another delegate suggested a forum be created, facilitated by the ACU, where universities involved in conflict resolution and reconciliation activities could collaborate.

Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai, Secretary General of the Association of African Universities, proposed an annual prize for universities doing doing excellent work around development goals. "The value of the prize is not important, but recognition would be."

Dr Theuns Eloff, chair of the ACU council and Vice-chancellor of North-West University in South Africa, told University World News that several important and "doable" ideas had emerged from the conference.

One was for greater engagement between universities and governments on the MDGs. A second was the call for national and regional university organisations to promote collaboration and partnerships among institutions to advance work on the goals.

A third strong proposal was for the ACU to monitor the activities of its members around the MDGs, probably by asking universities to submit annual reports on what they were doing. It would be worthwhile speaking to international donor agencies for funding support in an open process for universities to do more work on aspects of the goals.

"It is also a good idea to build international university networks so that not only the Harvards of the world are researching ways to advance the goals, but also universities in developing countries who would look at the MDGs from a totally different angle. The developing world was not involved in writing the MDGs, but could be involved in helping to attain them."

There was disappointment that only 12 UK, eight Australian and four Canadian universities attended the conference.

Tarrant told University World News that the reason the association was looking at the role of universities and the Millennium Development Goals now, rather than when they were forged nearly a decade ago, was because "universities were never recognised as drivers of the goals.

"The value of this international gathering is to show how useful university researchers have been and can be. By being able to speak with one voice, we will be able to raise the profile of universities and the MDGs."

South Africa's Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, called on the ACU to support the strengthening of initiatives aimed at building exchanges of knowledge and scholars across Africa in an effort to support the success of the development goals. He also urged the association to confront the brain drain problem.

Kamalesh Sharma, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, said an overarching truth was that universities were at the core of the development of societies. They should also be at the centre of meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

He missed the conference due to the volcanic ash cloud, but said in a speech read on his behalf that not everyone would take it as read that universities had the brain power, the capacity for research and development, the policy analysis and the training skills to answer the MDG call.

"We need to prove it, rather than merely assert it. Higher Education may have its supporters and it may be growing, but it needs to demonstrate its development aims and credentials, and indeed apply them to each of the goals," said Sharma.

Sharma said the Commonwealth would do everything in its power to push the case for higher education as an agent for change in meeting MDGs. "But no one can stake a better claim than your yourselves - and we urge you to do so."

* Professor John Wood, currently senior international relations adviser to Imperial College London, will take over as Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities on 1 July.