HE must help build a more sustainable, democratic future

Soon after the COVID pandemic hit Europe with full force, we urged universities to help shape the post-COVID world. We argued that the post-COVID world must be based on the values we cherish – democracy, human rights and the rule of law as well as social justice, inclusion and equity – and that we will need to re-emphasise the role of higher education institutions as societal actors for the public good.

Out of that University World News article grew a book on higher education’s response to COVID-19, published in the Council of Europe Higher Education Series. Issued at the very end of February 2021 and launched through an International Association of Universities webinar, the book offers 31 contributions by 42 authors from all continents.

Between them, the authors represent institutional leaders and practitioners from higher education, specialised agencies, public authorities and international organisations – both non-governmental and intergovernmental.

Following three articles that set the context, 17 contributions outline overall challenges and responses, while another 11 examine the more specific challenges and responses, such as in quality assurance, the recognition of qualifications, finance, internationalisation, legislation and impacts on staff or students. Further webinars will be held on 21 April focusing on Latin America and on Ireland.

The articles were written in the course of the summer of 2020, at a time when many of us thought the COVID pandemic would perhaps no longer be with us full scale by the time the book was published, even if it was clear that the COVID effects would last well beyond the pandemic itself.

A year after our first article, the pandemic is still a part of everyday reality in almost all parts of the world and its effects are both more devastating and longer lasting than originally imagined.

No return to the old normal

Despite the diversity of the backgrounds and origins of the authors, a good number of common points emerge. One is, obviously, that while the public health crisis needs to be solved as a matter of priority and this cannot be achieved without a strong contribution by higher education and research, solving the public health crisis would only be a first step in a process that cannot lead back to the status quo ante.

Rather, it should lead towards a better future – a future that higher education must help build.

We also cannot allow the health crisis to turn into a crisis of education and a crisis of democracy.

European ministers of education expressed the same concerns and determination when they met, appropriately online, in October 2020, during the six months Greece held the revolving Presidency of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.

Another common theme is a concern with countering a development towards greater inequality.

This tendency is not new, but it is reinforced by the pandemic. Within countries there are markedly unequal opportunities between different socio-economic groups, which in some countries coincide with other divides, such as race in the United States, Brazil and South Africa, or ethnic groups and migration in several European countries, or geography.

In the United States, the killing of George Floyd crystallised public anger at the violence, unequal treatment of and diminished opportunities facing the Black community (the murder case against a police officer is before the courts now).

Globally, the pandemic has exacerbated the divide between higher education opportunities in richer and less well-off countries. The divide could be further deepened by unequal access to vaccines. Much of Africa could fall further behind, as could parts of Asia and Latin America.

At the time of writing, for example, Brazil accounts for one fourth of daily COVID deaths in the world – and the Amazon variant found there is a new threat. Even without taking the effects of COVID into account, the policies of the current government had already weakened higher education before the onset of the pandemic.

Higher education must play a role in Brazil and elsewhere.

Indeed, the authors of one of the chapters in the book recently argued that universities should play a role in making vaccines more readily available in countries that can ill afford to buy doses at the high rate too often charged by pharmaceutical companies. The World Health Organization is now leading efforts in this sense through its COVAX programme.

Distrust and conspiracy theories

The pandemic reinforces the importance of research, of developing a culture of science and of basing political and societal choices on research evidence. The development of vaccines in record time is a major success for research, knowledge and understanding, but it is not matched by public understanding of and confidence in research results.

In several European countries, an uneven coalition of ‘alternative’ forces, often with an anti-democratic tinge, are exploiting fears and distrust of public authorities. In Germany, a constellation of the far right (Alternative für Deutschland and QAnon), the far left and adherents of various alternative fringe lifestyles arrange gatherings that propagate conspiracy theories and flaunt safety measures, such as masks and physical distancing.

In France, resistance to vaccines has run particularly high, especially in the early phases of the vaccine campaign. The resistance now seems to be rising somewhat again due to potential issues identified with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Above all, however, there emerges from the book a strong commitment to the role of higher education in building the societies of which we are a part. Whether from institutional leaders, higher education practitioners or public authorities, the message is very clear: we cannot build, rebuild or maintain and sustain modern, democratic societies without higher education playing a crucial role.

Rewarding democratic values

For democracy to work in practice, citizens must be imbued with a culture of democracy: the set of attitudes and behaviours that enables institutions, as well as laws and elections to be democratic in practice.

Education and schooling, including higher education, are essential to developing the values and competences required for democratic culture to take root and thrive. They are not a secondary activity.

On the contrary, democracy defines higher education’s primary mission. What one of the authors, Paul Pribbenow, called “democratic excellence” must be at the heart of higher education policy and practice. Contributing to democracy across all aspects of society needs to be better reflected in policies and reward systems, including in quality assurance and accreditation decisions.

The democratic mission of higher education must be reflected at all levels of engagement, from global to local.

At a local level, institutions should be encouraged to work with the communities of which they are a part to help build resilience and provide opportunities, especially for those in the community that come from backgrounds where higher education is not seen as a realistic option.

Three of us work at institutions – Queen’s University Belfast, Dublin City University and the University of Pennsylvania – that see community engagement as a key part of their mission.

In the United States, the Anchor Institutions Task Force gathers institutional leaders around a joint commitment to community, equity and democracy, while the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for Education Policy and Practice very recently adopted a plan to establish a platform to develop the local democratic mission of higher education.

The International Association of Universities (IAU) focuses on this in its work promoting the role of higher education for sustainable development in the context of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. The role higher education institutions play – and must increasingly play – in their local communities points to the importance of furthering inclusion and equal opportunities in and through higher education.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals predate the COVID-19 pandemic, but the global health crisis has brought the need for societies to be sustainable to the fore. As the IAU has championed for years, higher education must play a key part in advocacy and analysis, networking and convening, learning and research, for sustainable development to be a realistic option for our societies.

More than other crises, the COVID-19 pandemic shows that sustainable development must not only be a realistic option but highlights that there is no other option. If our societies are not sustainable, all other COVID lessons will ultimately be irrelevant.

Even if vaccines are made widely available and administered relatively soon, the pandemic will be with us for some time and its after-effects for even longer. We are facing a situation that is more serious than that caused by any global health crisis over the past century.

Nevertheless, our book on the higher education response to COVID-19 is above all a book of hope, confidence and determination: hope that we will come out of the pandemic with a different sense of direction for our societies, and confidence and determination that higher education will play a powerful part in helping to create a sustainable, inclusive, truly democratic post-COVID world.

Ira Harkavy is founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, University of Pennsylvania, United States. He also chairs the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy and the Anchor Institutions Task Force. Sjur Bergan is head of the Education Department, Council of Europe and a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group. Tony Gallagher is professor of education at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, UK, and former pro-vice chancellor for academic planning and external affairs. Hilligje van’t Land is secretary general of the International Association of Universities and strongly engaged in higher education and research for sustainable development. Professor Ronaldo Munck is head of civic engagement at Dublin City University in Ireland and a visiting professor of international development at the University of Liverpool and St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia. Higher Education’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic is published by the Council of Europe.