Inequality, intolerance threaten universities – Kofi Annan

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called on universities around the world to promote democracy as growing inequality and intolerance threaten higher education globally.

He was addressing more than 250 vice-chancellors, early career academics, members of government and student representatives at this year’s Association of Commonwealth Universities or ACU Conference of University Leaders on 27 July in Accra, Ghana.

The association, which has more than 500 member institutions from 37 Commonwealth countries, hosted the three-day biennial conference in partnership with Vice-Chancellors’ Ghana. It was the first ACU event in the region in 45 years.

Annan, the conference’s keynote speaker, urged universities to expand access to students of all backgrounds and to instil in them a sense of civic responsibility to counter the rising tide of undemocratic governance, following the conference theme – “defining the responsible university: Society, impact and growth”.

“Education strengthens popular support for democracy,” Annan said. “With education, young voters are better equipped to detect abuses of power, less tolerant of corruption, and are equipped with the tools and knowledge to fight against both.”

The conference featured breakout presentation and discussion sessions that focused on topics including the university’s social responsibility, faith and tolerance in education, how universities can meet labour market needs, Commonwealth scholarships and the university’s role in addressing historical injustices in South Africa and the Caribbean.

Attendees also participated in a conference-wide debate on society’s expectations of higher education and heard from a panel of education ministers that fielded their questions.

Unity in diversity

The Commonwealth comprises 53 countries spanning six continents. It is made up of small-member states as well as some of the most populated nations on earth.

Within the Commonwealth, about 17 million children of primary education age are currently out of school and more than 400 million adults are illiterate, according to Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.

Scotland, who also spoke at the conference, stressed collaboration among member countries despite differences of race, ethnicity and culture.

“All of us today are communicating in the same language,” she said. "That is an opportunity we shouldn’t waste because if the goals are similar, if the language through which we communicate is similar, if the problems we face are similar, then we are given an opportunity through conjoined work to come up with eclectic, successful solutions.”

Annan also encouraged those in attendance to overcome their differences by acting on commonalities, calling the Commonwealth “a unique institution that transcends the division of gender and geography, race and religion”.

Some challenges

While emphasising the similarities that bind Commonwealth universities together, Annan, Scotland and other speakers highlighted major challenges that are holding back higher education institutions around the world.

Nearly 96% of universities within the Commonwealth believe they are adequately preparing students for employment while only 14% of graduates and 12% of business leaders agree, according to Scotland.

“There’s a mismatch between students coming out of our universities and their employers,” said Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang, Ghana’s minister for education.

This dissonance was cited throughout the conference as one of the main obstacles in encouraging students to solve the many challenges facing the global higher education sector.

Among the challenges are imminent hurdles such as a lack of funding and resources and limited access to tertiary education for low-income and disadvantaged children. In the long term, the challenges include climate change, mass migration and disruptive technologies.

But Scotland says it is the acknowledgement of these problems and the willingness to work across borders that will determine the future of higher education.

“We can choose to continue to swim on our own and drown or we can choose to swim together and go to places that we were never able to go,” she said.