Beyond regions: A global role for university associations

The Global Role of University Associations webinar hosted on 18 January by the International Association of Universities (IAU) brought together the chief executives of university associations in the United States, Brazil, Africa and the Mediterranean region to discuss both the structures of their organisations and the challenges their members face as we begin the third calendar year of the COVID-19 crisis.

Although Dr Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), stressed that the council is not part of the United States government, his fellow presenters might well have felt a certain envy for the former undersecretary of education in the administration of Barack Obama, who meets regularly with Miguel Cardona, the present secretary of education, and the heads of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Such access to political power is not surprising, given the close ties between ACE, which was founded in Washington, DC, shortly before the end of the First World War under the name ‘Emergency Council on Education’, and the US government.

United States – Three tasks

The American government asked the council, on its establishment, to do three things, Mitchell explained. First, to connect higher education institutions together to help serve in the rebuilding of a war-torn world.

Second, to make higher education more accessible to young men and women who had served in the armed forces as well as low-income first-generation students who were underrepresented in America’s colleges and universities.

The organisation’s third task was “to work closely with the government to develop policies and programmes that would assist in the development of a robust higher education system that served all students in all communities in all states, and provided a bulwark for a healthy economy”.

Mitchell, who served as president of both Occidental College (Los Angeles) and the California State Board of Education, also explained the mosaic of American higher education, which includes community colleges, four-year liberal arts colleges, state universities, and public and private major research universities.

The non-Americans among the webinar’s 200-plus viewers also heard about “the colleges that were set up particularly to educate the sons and daughters of slaves, the historically black colleges and universities, and tribal institutions that are meant to be the educational ladder for our first peoples in the US”.

Mitchell did not have time to expound in detail on these missions, but it should be noted that by 1920 the council had established the groundwork for the accreditation system still in use today, which sees institutions judged by academic peers. Further, in 1938, ACE undertook pioneering research into the damaging effects of racism on black children’s education in the American South.

Africa – More than just a continent

Dr Olusola Oyewole, the secretary general of the Association of African Universities (AAU), leads an organisation a half century younger than ACE, and one that spans more than just a continent. In addition to disseminating higher education research from 46 African countries, the AAU aims “to encourage the development and use of African languages in African institutions”, said the Ghana-based Oyewole.

As the higher education development arm of the African Union, the AAU is central, Oyewole said, to both regional and pan-African development aspirations. The organisation “integrates issues that underlie the continent’s socioeconomic development, setting the intellectual agenda and [facilitating] knowledge sharing by generating a credible evidence base for … reliable advice on policies and practices of higher education in Africa”.

Areas he chose to highlight include the development of a continental policy on the harmonisation of academic credits, policies on gender and HIV-AIDS, staff retention, academic freedom and freeing students from debt incurred financing their education.

The Mediterranean – Working on common problems

The Mediterranean Universities Union (UNIMED) is made up of 140 universities in 20 countries of the Mediterranean littoral, the West Balkans, and Finland – which the organisation’s Rome-based director, Marcello Scalisi, playfully called “very Mediterranean”.

The organisation was founded in 1991 when, Scalisi recalled, the political situation, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was more hopeful (the Oslo Accords would be signed two years later).

“Now, I think we are in a worse situation; we have more conflict in the region,” he noted, pointing to the Syrian refugee crisis among others in North Africa.

Among UNIMED’s initiatives are several that bring together universities in various countries to work on common problems. In addition to seeking solutions to problems brought on by forced migration, climate change, food and water scarcity, and lack of critical infrastructure, Scalisi said, working groups seek to model civic cooperation.

“We try to show our communities that it is possible to talk about medical treatment, for example, in the context of intercultural dialogue,” Scalisi said. To ensure that the participants feel ownership for the solutions, each institution pays the same membership fee to UNIMED.

During the second part of the webinar each of the presenters sketched the political ecosystem in which their organisations and its member institutions function.

Executive Director of Brasília-based Brazilian Association for International Education Dr Renée Barata Zicman ended her discussion of the need for more horizontal cooperation between the Global North and South, and the South, and the South South (eg Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Algeria, Angola, Libya, Nigeria, Chad and Equatorial Guinea) by speaking as a Brazilian to a concerned foreign audience of educators.

A ‘difficult moment’ for Brazil

“As you all might know, Brazil [which is by far the largest, with a population of 212 million, and the most powerful country in South America] is going through a very special and difficult moment. The current government [of Jair Bolsonaro] is nationalist, anti-science and anti-university. But the country, and this is very, very important to emphasise, is much bigger than the government.”

Rebuilding the nation, she said, will require resilient universities and resilient science. Universities will have a great role and prominence. “It’s important we must act more and better together,” she says.

Scalisi, who spoke next, offered what comfort he could to Zicman before noting that the politics she described are not confined to Brazil. The COVID crisis had further divided European society, which was already separating into groups as a result of globalisation – even if that phenomenon had not been fully appreciated, he said. For academics, one way to counter the politics Scalisi summarised by reference to former US president Donald Trump, is by throwing open the door to more collaboration and integration among scholars.

A global society

“We have to escape this Euro-Mediterranean dialogue and move around the world. I think that universities and their members have to dialogue with African universities, with American universities, with Asian universities because we are a global society,” said Scalisi.

Further, he argued, the COVID crisis had affected higher education badly for many in the Mediterranean basin. The pivot to online learning was complicated, for many of the universities in UNIMED, by two issues.

One, shared by millions of students around the world, was the lack of access to high-speed internet, which some universities ameliorated by opening up their campuses so students could connect to the school’s internet. This problem was shared, Pam Fredman, director of the IAU, added later, “even in a country like Sweden ... by people sharing small apartments with four kids”.

A second problem Scalisi highlighted concerned academic freedom and university autonomy, an issue also touched on by Zicman and Fredman. The professors in some of the universities in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean could not use existing digital resources because they might not have been legal in the eyes of, say, Algerian or Iraqi ministers of education.

“In some countries, it is forbidden to have e-learning,” he told the webinar.

“Looking at our region in particular,” Scalisi said, “I have to say that academic freedom and university autonomy remain one of the key issues for southern countries and communities.”

Equity on campuses

At the end of his second set of comments, Mitchell noted how the rapid development of the [Moderna] COVID-19 vaccine was made possible by the strong relationship between the US government and the research sector, including major universities.

Before that, however, he raised what he described as the “significant” and “continuing” challenge of equity in the US. Although he did not reference the October 2021 study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which shows that between 2020 and 2021, whites and Asians made up 12.3% of the decline of 603,000 college and university students, but that blacks made up 22.3%, Mitchell painted a dark picture of racial equity on America’s campuses.

“I think one of the significant issues that our institutions face is a continuing issue. On the topic of equity, we have for about 30 years worked very hard to create better access in our institutions for low-income first-generation students of colour. We have inched up in terms of the percentage of those students in our student bodies. But the pandemic has really threatened that.

“There has been a decrease in enrolment … particularly among those students whom we’ve been so focused on, from under-resourced backgrounds. So, we’re quite concerned at the institutional level that we’re going to lose a generation’s worth of progress on access.”