HE should prepare students for life not just livelihood

The mission of universities in the years to 2050 is to take active responsibility in the development of the potential of all humans; promoting well-being and sustainability oriented towards justice, solidarity and human rights, respecting culture and diversity, creating space for dialogue and forging collaborations between local and global communities and with other levels of education, other social institutions and the economy.

These are the key messages of a report by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC), Thinking Higher and Beyond: Perspectives on the futures of higher education to 2050, published on 25 May 2021. The report is based on the views of 25 global higher education experts who were invited to participate in IESALC’s ‘Future of Higher Education´ initiative.

The key messages are expressed in four broad statements, which speak of taking active responsibility for our common humanity, promoting well-being and sustainability, drawing strength from intercultural and epistemic diversity, and upholding and creating interconnectedness at multiple levels.

Values such as respect, empathy, equality and solidarity will be at the core of future higher education institutions’ missions and their work, adds the report. In other words, “education with a soul” that “prepares learners not only for livelihood but for life”, according to Dzulkifli Razak, rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia, at a webinar hosted by UNESCO IESALC to launch the report.

Driven by these ‘soulful’ values, higher education can stand and act together in collectively responding to global challenges, shape the worlds around it by raising its voice and reconsider its engagement across regions by pursuing mutually inclusive internationalisation.

Jocelyne Gacel-Avila, coordinator of the Regional Observatory on Internationalization and Networks in Tertiary Education for Latin America and The Caribbean, University of Guadalajara, Mexico, says that education with a soul also means “supporting students to be better citizens, more aware of their civic and environmental responsibilities”.

Learners should be tolerant regardless of gender identities, sexual preference, class, language, ethnicity and other markers that often describe or define people and are divisive. Critical thinkers are needed to counter prejudices and fake news.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown there is a greater need for global cooperation in research, innovation and enhancing scientific capabilities, the report says.

“Responses to global challenges such as this will be at the heart of future international cooperation, underpinned by values of integrity and equitable access that should also be reflected in how higher education institutions are led and governed.”

The education experts consulted agreed that higher education institutions should promote values such as respect, empathy, equality and solidarity.

“We talk about knowledge, but we lack wisdom,” said Razak during the webinar. He spoke of “humanising education”. “It has to be inclusive, sustainable and resilient,” he added.

Democratic pacific movement

Patricia Ruiz Bravo, UNESCO chair on gender equality in higher education institutions, from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, talked about the importance of universities in forging a democratic, pacific movement characterised by its humanity and inclusivity, for example, by opening themselves to indigenous populations and promoting welfare, ways of living together as well as tolerance.

She also emphasised the importance of working together. In this regard, she mentioned the study being carried out by a group of Peruvian universities on violence and sexual harassment.

Universities should be “open doors”, she said, offering subjects through the internet and engaging in projects related to citizens’ realities, such as the COVID-related projects Peruvian universities are carrying out.

Dorcas Beryl Otieno, professor in the department of environmental and community development studies at Kenyatta University, Kenya, is quoted in the report as emphasising that “a more humane higher education for all is needed, to include more of the most vulnerable and traditionally excluded groups such as out-of-schoolers, women, unemployed youths and persons with disabilities, [and] indigenous communities, in accordance with the broader objective to leave no one behind”.

The report underlines that universities should also work at democratising digitalisation. Higher education institutions should advocate for the right to connectivity and do networking, for example through learning hubs. Furthermore, the report says, they should be at the forefront of advocating measures to combat climate change and other global challenges, including integrating climate change education into learning, researching the subject and producing and disseminating technologies.

The report also points out that more should be done in fulfilling the right to higher education for all. Higher education should be organised in ways that focus on integrating learning across disciplines. To cope with change, flexible and inclusive programmes and pathways as well as adaptive and creative approaches to assessing and accrediting learning outcomes are needed.

“Just as learning and teaching will remain at the heart of higher education, so too will its role in creating and sharing knowledges.” This idea is examined in a whole section of the report.

The experts consulted also agreed on the fundamental message that the strength of higher education lies in diversity. For this, it should employ “plural ways of knowing and doing”. The question of how diverse learners can be supported and the barriers that may preclude access to higher education are also explored.