Universities must address local and global challenges

Universities face a dual and potentially conflicting responsibility to address both the local demands of society based on the race for global competitiveness and local and global demands to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable society at local and global level, according to new report by the Global University Network for Innovation.

Universities’ contribution to society is measured not only by its impact on higher education and research but also by the extent to which it carries out a third mission: social and cultural interaction between the university and the environment which aims to improve the community, the report says.

At the same time, they have become key institutions for meeting the global challenges facing humanity and the planet, which are described in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

The greatest challenge of all is for higher education institutions – especially those specialising in research – to be recognised as civic, entrepreneurial, innovative, flagship and globally competitive, and both locally and globally engaged, the report concludes.

The report, Towards a Socially Responsible University: Balancing the global with the local, published by the Global University Network for Innovation or GUNi, is the sixth report in its “Higher Education in the World” series on the social commitment of universities.

The report studies the duality of university engagement with both the immediate needs of local society and the global challenges of the world. Eighty-six experts from 28 countries have contributed to the dissection of the topic in the report and the identification of good practices that can help academic leaders and policy-makers realise the highest purposes of education and research, the introduction says.

Francesc Xavier Grau, academic director of the report, said at its launch in Barcelona, Spain, on 10 March, that the aim of the publication is "to facilitate reflection on the emerging problems and challenges of higher education in the world”.

Federico Mayor Zaragoza, president of the Fundación Cultura de Paz (Foundation for a Culture of Peace), Spain, and a former director general of UNESCO, said higher education "has responsibilities that until now have not been known to be put into practice", alluding to social responsibilities, and often "confused education with training".

The director general for multilateral and European affairs of the Government of Catalonia in Spain, Manuel Manonelles, stressed that in the current context "it is necessary to promote an education that builds critical citizens capable of facing a complex reality".

Global challenges

Analysing the global context and its implications for higher education, the report says global indicators relating to health, education, life expectancy, gender equality, etc, unquestionably show that over the past 30 years many people have experienced the greatest positive evolution in history.

Yet increasing social instabilities – including deepening economic inequality, continuing violence against women, continuing exclusion of indigenous persons, increased lack of personal safety, and a growing number of extreme weather events providing evidence of climate change – have contributed to a general sense of preoccupation and urgency about the sustainability of the present model of development.

The global challenge for humanity is summarised by the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, and the combination of higher education and research provided by universities is included in one way or another in one third of them.

It quotes UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who stated: “All regions and countries can benefit from progress toward a knowledge-based economy, which does not depend heavily on material resources, places less of a burden on ecosystems and is more sustainable than other economic models. By shifting to a knowledge-based economy, societies can move from the age of scarcity to the age of abundance.

“Knowledge does not deplete with use but rather increases as it is shared among people. Through technological innovation, we can help usher in a more sustainable future. To generate progress, countries must invest in education, science and technology.”

At the heart of local and global strategies

The report says the global state of affairs places universities at the heart of national and global strategies.

Two of the most vital tasks for universities are addressing the disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest, which Mayor Zaragoza argues have “reached limits that can no longer be tolerated”, and the crucially changed balance between the planet and mankind – where we have reached the point when population growth and human activity influence the habitability of the earth.

Both Ban Ki-moon and Zaragoza identify the unique role of higher education institutions and higher education systems as potentially leading the way in this enormous task of developing a sustainable and responsible pathway for our common home.

The report concludes that universities can play a vital role in helping to solve problems if they adopt the mission of a “civic university”, as argued by Goddard et al (2016).

But “universities are often acting contrary to the public good, helping to increase inequalities – for example by celebrating policies of selectivity and neglecting their local or regional commitments – rather than by lessening them", the report says.

The report says the SDGs are a good starting point for establishing concrete global objectives for higher education institutions and their specific responsibilities should include:
  • • Adopting the mantle of the civic university – pursuing the ‘public good’ by aligning its interests with those of society, and working collaboratively with other higher education institutions to maximise their collective impact;

  • • Playing a proactive role in ensuring that the SDGs are included in local agendas, proposing changes to education, conducting research and engaging with local and global communities on sustainable development;

  • • Educating the 'SDG generation' needed to make the SDGs a reality, with the necessary knowledge, skills, competencies and partnerships, thereby helping to produce new SDG leaders;

  • • Building capacities for SDG policies, planning and management;

  • • Conducting transversal reviews and refinements of curricula to ensure the mainstreaming of SDG issues across curricula, and including new values and practices for economic development that enhance social equity while reducing environmental risk;

  • • Facilitating an in-depth understanding of reality;

  • • Widening and extending access to and successful participation in higher education by serving the needs of an increasingly diverse student cohort (from 18 to 100 years), by adopting new organisational structures and pedagogical approaches, including online, open and flexible learning that can help in forging the new ‘SDG generation’.
Key role for university networks

The role of university networks and social networks can play an important part in addressing global challenges, the report highlights in one section (7.2). It argues that the complexity, dynamism and global nature of our current context requires a huge amount of knowledge and social dialogue.

It cites as an example of the complexity, the appearance of new technologies transforming societies in terms of social and family organisation, the organisation of work and a globalised economy and the fact that information and technology are becoming strategic factors for any society striving for social progress and economic competitiveness.

The implication of this complexity is that it is “no longer possible for an institution or organisation (whether a government, university, company or any other) to act with full autonomy and resolve questions that are in themselves complex and interdependent. There is a growing need to create knowledge networks, networks of institutions and organisations that share joint challenges (and therefore projects)”.

The report’s editorial team is led by Frances Xavier Grau, professor of fluid mechanics at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Spain, and includes John Goddard, emeritus professor of regional development studies at Newcastle University, UK; Budd L Hall, co-chair of the UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, a professor of community development in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria in Canada, and secretary of the Global Alliance on Community-Engaged Research; Ellen Hazelkorn, emeritus professor and director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland; and Rajesh Tandon, a doctor and internationally acclaimed leader and practitioner of participatory research and development.

GUNi was created in 1999 by UNESCO, the United Nations University and the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya to implement the decisions of the 1998 World Conference on Higher Education. It has 208 members from 78 countries.

The 537-page report is available in full version on open access, but also in a printed reduced version.