Can universities be locally and globally engaged?

The Global University Network for Innovation has published its sixth Higher Education in the World report, Towards a Socially Responsible University: Balancing the global with the local. It draws on 86 experts from 28 countries across the world to explore the dual responsibilities of universities at local and global scale, exploring the potential conflict, or intrinsic difficulties, in addressing both 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 levels.

University World News talks to its lead editor, Francesc Xavier Grau, professor of fluid mechanics in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain – where he was also rector of the unversity from 2006 to 2014 – about how the report may help academic leaders and policy-makers to realise the highest purposes of education and research.

UWN: The GUNI report is an impressive body of work, could you tell me what your purpose was when you set out?

FXG: My idea is that this duality, local and global engagement, can be conflicting if the university has not discussed that engagement in its mission, if the academics are not very aware of the double engagement. The problem can arise if you are strongly focused on local engagement and not aware of your global responsibilities. Universities should be aware of that and include this duality in their mission.

I tried to put this duality on the table. So I began to build an editorial team with two souls. The previous report, published in 2015, had been more on engagement contributing to social change and addressing global challenges I asked the editors of that report, Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon, to continue but incorporate into the team two people who were well aware of local engagement, John Goddard and Ellen Hazelkorn.

They belong conceptually to two different worlds. So we tried to put the two communities together. We were creating duality within the editorial team, and looked for experts from both perspectives in those who were contributing to the report.

There is a prevailing tendency in university policies – most are devoted to local engagement, to improve competitivity compared to other people. The point is not to say this is wrong, but that at the same time universities have to calibrate to ensure local competitiveness is contributing to real local challenges.

UWN: What do you think are the most important findings or conclusion of your team?

FXG: There is no single recipe. We tried to bring some good practices and examples from around the world. The final chapter outlines our recommendations and the final one is that universities have to be at the same time civic universities and globally engaged universities. At same time not all universities have to do the same thing, each has to stand on their feet and to identify what are they good for and what they do for society. And each university has to identify its own profile.

Again here there is duality. Each university has to keep its singularity, it is important to have diversity of profiles between universities, but with that they have all to contribute to the same global goals, this is the duality of local and global.

So for instance we are saying that we have to reframe the curriculum and include the importance of local and global engagement. There is an emerging related field in Europe called responsible research. Of course, all research should be responsible. But the idea is that from the beginning when professors are conceiving a research project, whether in humanities or technological, they should base it on the interests of society.

Also, there is within the report a reflection on governance. We tend to think in terms of the models of governance in developed countries, but in most of the world universities have very low autonomy, with governments interfering in the selection of professors or even the functioning of universities. So we have to send a message to all societies that universities have to be autonomous to do their work and to be really responsible.

UWN: What is the significance of your findings?

FXG: I don’t see what we are putting forward as a big groundbreaking idea but rather that what is interesting is the confluence of what people are saying from different perspectives. There are people contributing on the curriculum, on ethical issues. Each are giving some ideas well known in their field but here they are put together. That will be our contribution.

Our point is that universities exist because societies need knowledge at a higher level. Nowadays this is used for global competitiveness. But if you are only looking at local needs as a university you are contributing to a zero sum game with winners and losers. There is nothing wrong with helping your society become more competitive, but at the same time you should be aware of the global sustainability of what you are doing.

UWN: But couldn’t one argue that in the current context, with a popular mood of anti-expertism spreading, in the United Kingdom and United States for instance, that universities have to do more than ever to show that they are relevant to their local and national population and doesn’t that mean local engagement and helping the local economy fight its corner against competitors from around the world?

FXG: A good example of what responsibility means will answer that question. If there is a problem in society of identifying what universities are doing, universities should care about that. When defining research policies they have to root that in the needs of society. The taxpayer should understand why they are paying for your research. At every level from local, to city to national, if universities do not measure the needs of their immediate society they will have problems.

Against this there is the relationship between government and universities: when government is laying down the rules for applying for research projects in national plans, they have to take into account both the global and local perspective.

The message applies as much at supranational level, in Europe for instance. The Horizon 2020 programme cites global challenges, especially in the fields of environment and energy, and is doing good work there, but I don’t think behind this there is an analysis of the wider global challenges, as outlined in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – I don’t see specific programmes for education or water at the global level for instance.

UWN: Are the SDGs really the sum of the global challenges universities should consider?

FXG: They are an approximation, a reduction, but at least they are agreed at a global level, so can have authority. The UN is saying there are 17 goals to address global problems. It is a reduction of the complexity of the planet but it is good to have a concrete list to look at. That is why we have used it as a reference.

UWN: You have spent two years putting this immense – more than 500 page – report together, and a lot must have changed in that time. The perception of the global challenges has shifted or become crystalised in some cases, as seen in the current political reaction to digital disruption and automation and the job losses that can go with it, the sense of the failure of nation states to hold the forces of globalisation to account and the disputes over climate change resurfacing. What does it mean for universities and their mission?

FXG: Well yes, during this period the SDGs have been approved, but taking that aside, my personal perception, rather than that of the report, is that concerning university policies there are at least two communities and they don’t come together, they don’t even talk to each other.

We tried with the report to bring together the global community and the competitiveness community. These are two separate sets of academics and politicians and we have tried from the beginning to have this mix in every chapter. But I must confess that they had different opinions and did not reach a common view. That is interesting in itself. People – researchers of higher education – are studying universities and university policies from each perspective and coming together as a community but not talking to the other community.

It shows how difficult it will be to attain the dual engagement we are talking about. There is a dominance in the day-to-day work of universities of local demands. They are on the table of rectors every day, the demands of society. So that is prevailing and the discourse about the global needs, if there, is present in a softer way.

It should not be like this. And that is why our final conclusion is making a call to universities to include the global perspective in their mission, not just bring it into their day-to-day work, but into the definition of their work.

UWN: In practical terms how does a university go about implementing your idea of dual engagement, locally and globally. Is this something to be done on a structural level, or at a curriculum level and who will do it?

FXG: We are not giving a recipe. The question is, where is the problem? And to us the question is defined by the relationship between the government and the universities. In this dialogue when a government is putting resources into the university system and asking universities to have objectives, it is putting a condition on universities, conditioning the behaviour of universities. Even a very autonomous university finds itself subject to conditions.

If countries do believe there are global challenges, those global challenges should be there on the conditions that governments are putting to universities. Autonomous universities will find their own structures and ways of doing the task. But there is a single way of putting the conditions. It is how universities are financed.

UWN: But are some countries better at setting the right conditions than others?

FXG: I will give you a personal opinion on that. University systems that are closer to the dual engagement perspective can be found in northern Europe and Nordic systems, say from Belgium and Germany to the north. They have a level of autonomy and social perspective to develop more globally in their mission. I would include Canada too, where I see universities worrying about the global impact. There are some examples among research universities in Hong Kong too.

But there is a tendency now for Nordic countries to approach the Anglo-Saxon model, with the state taking a step back from financing the universities and trying to introduce commercialisation. That is an effect of tendencies imposed in Europe, the UK and the United States.

UWN: So is there government pressure against tackling global challenges?

FXG: The question behind this trend is who is benefiting from higher education, is it the citizen or society? For sure you could say the citizen benefits, for sure also the whole of society does. What is important is where the balance lies.

From the Anglo-Saxon point of view it is the citizen who is having the main benefit and they have to contribute to the cost by paying high fees and when you take that idea everything follows in one direction. You begin to look at universities more as a corporate enterprise that has to find its own ways of financing itself.

This undermines the autonomy of universities. The basis of autonomy is financial autonomy. And if you obtain that by going to the market you are losing autonomy. The only way to have complete autonomy is to have the idea that higher education is a social good and has to be funded by government.

In this sense, it appears that Nordic countries are moving from one idea of who benefits to the other. In southern countries in Europe these discussions have never emerged.

UWN: Does government militate against dual engagement, in the sense that political discourse tends to focus on funding priorities being about STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] jobs, and producing graduates fits for jobs, but rarely with arts, humanities and maybe even social sciences in mind?

FXG: Let’s look at it on two levels. The first is that all universities should be autonomous. This is a huge task for most of the world.

And then in Western countries, where they have autonomy, we are saying they have to include in their mission global challenges with local commitments, which means they have to somehow moderate that discourse, that tendency to commercialise universities.

These are matters that are not only important for universities but for societies. Governments should be aware of that. When you push for employability, at same time you should ask universities to contribute to global challenges, so that it is not something that arises only from universities. The relationship between governments and universities should include both demands.

The UK is leading the tendency towards commercialisation, along with the US and Australia. In some ways that tendency is not sustainable, it is a race that leads to an unsustainable battle and nobody knows what will happen when the bubble bursts.

That does not mean there are not good examples of dual engagement in those systems. Take a look at our case studies, for example the University of Pennsylvania, whose local engagement work moved from being mostly a means to help the institution revitalise its local environment to a way for it to achieve eminence as a research university.

This includes the work of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which coordinates more than 200 academically based community service courses. These integrate research, teaching, learning and service around action-oriented community problem-solving. They have tackled strategic problems such as improving the health and nutrition of disadvantaged inner city children.

UWN: Lastly, are rankings also part of that pressure, against dual engagement, and if so how could that be changed?

FXG: Well this is my personal view but in fact I think we do need rankings. But it is useless to look for a perfect ranking, because that doesn’t exist. To me the idea of increasing the complexity of rankings is wrong. If we keep them simple, there are still imperfections, a science bias, a language bias, for example, but you know what those biases are.

The point is to read the rankings for what they are measuring, the impact of research. In that sense they do a good job. Just don’t get fooled by them and use them for other things. And that is the responsibility of both universities and mainly of governments, but also the public media.

Do we have something to say that this university is better than that? No, just that this university has more science impact than the other.

If governments are using rankings to say they have a better system, it is too simplistic. Governments and universities should try to focus in that sense on the quality of systems, on assurance of quality of systems, and not use rankings as a simplification of or substitute for that quality assurance system.