Higher education institutions are anchors for democracy

Without higher education’s commitment and leadership, we will not have real democracy. This was the primary conclusion of the Global Forum on Higher Education Leadership for Democracy, Sustainability and Social Justice held at Dublin City University in June.

Although this was the seventh Global Forum involving cooperation between the Council of Europe and the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy since 1999, it was the first under the Global Cooperation for the Democratic Mission of Higher Education, which also includes the Organization of American States and the International Association of Universities.

Attended by participants from 40 countries, the invitational conference was part of the programme of the Irish Chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and was addressed by Ireland’s Minister of State for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne.

In opening the Global Forum, Simon Harris, Ireland’s Minister for Further and Higher Education, underlined that the choice to attend university must be available to all, that education should be part of the public good and that any barriers should be removed.

This sentiment was echoed throughout the conference, as was the observation that the COVID-19 pandemic, while still very much with us, revealed and increased inequality.

Speakers hailed from Central, Eastern and Western Europe, across the US, Latin America and the Caribbean, South Africa and Australia, and included higher education leaders from a range of colleges and universities, national and international associations, public authorities and student unions.

Poverty and marginalisation

Many presenters and participants viewed poverty and the difficulties individuals have in mobilising the resources they need in their daily lives as the most important obstacles to democracy.

This includes the failure of students from disadvantaged backgrounds to acquire the competences they need to participate fully in increasingly complex societies. As several participants said, why would people care about democracy if they are constantly hungry?

The ongoing killing of black Americans and other minorities in the United States ties in with deeply troubling global trends that include increasing economic, political, social, educational, and health inequalities; increasing racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia; increasing attacks on science, knowledge and democracy itself; and declining trust in nearly all major institutions and the concomitant rise of autocracy.

The threats to democracy, therefore, are legion. The Global Forum was held against the background of divided societies, xenophobia and rising populism in many parts of the world. This has led to the emergence of autocratic and authoritarian regimes on the right, as well as some on the left, that profess a populism that erodes the fundamentals of democracy.

These developments testify to the distress of many citizens, but they also underline the need for higher education institutions to increase their efforts to work together and with other organisations to defend and reinforce democratic principles.

The need for participatory democracy

Stronger democratic institutions are required in many parts of the world; but democratic institutions, themselves, are insufficient.

Democratic societies must be underpinned by participatory democracy in all areas of life as part of a culture of democracy characterised by the will to resolve conflicts through dialogue rather than through violence, the will and ability to weigh short-term against long-term priorities as well as the competences to look at issues from different angles.

Inclusion, active engagement, knowledge, understanding and critical thinking are the driving forces of progressive change. They always have been and always will be.

Developing a culture of democracy, with democratic participation as a core component, must be a top priority for higher education. In fact, colleagues at the Forum discussed and debated whether “advancing democracy democratically” should be higher education’s primary mission.

With Russia’s war on Ukraine, Europe is facing a crisis in which the road to dialogue is closed and in which a statement by many Russian rectors contradicts the very values of higher education by claiming universities have a duty to support the state and foster patriotism.

Higher education for democracy has to develop the will and ability in students to analyse and reflect critically, which includes identifying alternative solutions to those put forward by others, including by governments.

But there is hope, and that hope is vested in higher education institutions. They powerfully shape the learning, values and aspirations of students, from kindergarten through graduate school. To put it simply, without democratic higher education, there is no democratic schooling; and without democratic schooling, there are no democratic societies.

Therefore, it is essential that both higher education leaders and public authorities recognise that helping to build democratic and inclusive societies is one of the indispensable missions of higher education. Without solid citizenship, education and engagement, a truly democratic society is not possible.

The local democratic mission of universities

The host of the global forum, Dublin City University, shows that higher education can and should combine academic excellence and a strong societal commitment. Dublin City University also illustrates in practice the significance of the local democratic mission of higher education.

The need for higher education institutions to develop deep, democratic, transparent relationships with their neighbours was a central theme of the forum.

Working with their communities and functioning as democratic anchor institutions that value and incorporate local knowledge and expertise was discussed as a way to advance democracy and equitable development, as well as make increased contributions to research, teaching and learning.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment emphasised the importance of individual freedom, reason and science and the value of human life. More than two centuries later, some may be getting tired of the light of progress. It is the task of higher education to keep the light and the flame alive.

Benjamin Franklin famously said there are three kinds of people: those that are immovable, those who are movable and those who move. The global forum was clear that higher education must be a mover, but also that the direction of the move is essential: higher education must help move our societies towards democracy, sustainability and social justice and away from autocracy, chaos and inequity.

The forum participants were also clear that building and sustaining an international movement for the democratic mission of higher education is necessary to do just that. The meeting in Dublin was an important step forward in turning dialogue into local and global action.

The academic community and public authorities alike must recognise that the best measure of a society’s greatness is no longer the size of its army but the strength of its civil society and its contribution to the greater good through education, research, diversity, democracy and social inclusion.

Higher education and public authorities – central, regional or state and local governments – must act accordingly. The Global Cooperation for the Democratic Mission of Higher Education is committed to help move this crucial work forward.

This article relates to Sustainable Development Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. You can find more information about the 17 SDGs and 169 targets for implementing them here.

Sjur Bergan was head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department until the end of January 2022 and a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group until mid-April 2022. Ira Harkavy is founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, University of Pennsylvania, United States; he is also chair of the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy and founding chair of the Anchor Institutions Task Force. Rita Hodges is associate director of the Netter Center and serves as executive secretary of the International Consortium. 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. Yadira Pinilla is a senior specialist in the Department of Human Development, Education and Employment at the Organization of American States. Hilligje van’t Land is secretary general of the International Association of Universities and strongly engaged in higher education and research for sustainable development.