Universities urged to embrace global values in partnerships

Nordic university rectors meeting in Brussels last month reiterated the importance of international cooperation with partners outside of Europe and the need to embrace “global academic values”.

The gathering, known as Nordic University Days, brought together 62 rectors and vice-rectors from universities in Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway, as well as representatives of the European Commission and the European Parliament for two days of high-level talks about Nordic ‘visions’ for the European Knowledge Area.

Held on 26 and 27 September 2022, it was organised by several of the Nordic universities’ offices in Brussels and hosted by the Icelandic Rectors’ Conference.

In a statement following the conference, university leaders emphasised six key messages, the first of which was the need to continue to prioritise academic freedom and institutional autonomy in terms of research, teaching and expression, without fear of societal, political or religious interference.

In this context, the rectors said they should “consider moving away from undefined concepts such as ‘European values’ and towards academic fundamental values, since universities are global by nature and so are their values”, according to an online statement from the University of Iceland.

Rectors also acknowledged that international research and innovation cooperation with partners outside of Europe was “essential” to boost competitiveness in addressing various challenges such as pandemics and climate change. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of international scientific collaboration based on a shared commitment to academic freedom and integrity,” they said.

University leaders noted that EU research and innovation programmes have long been the most international and open to the world and this must continue. “Nordic universities are committed to preserving and protecting the freedom of research and to maintaining research environments that promote the free exchange of research results,” they said.

‘Europe in the world’

In a presentation entitled “Europe in the World”, Ole Petter Ottersen, president of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, told the gathering it was important for universities to cling,
“even in turbulent times”, to the idea that universities are global in their nature and global in their commitment and responsibility. “Knowledge must be seen as a global public good,” he said.

While the European Universities initiative and plans to bolster the European Research Area provide “welcome opportunities” for collaboration within the EU, they also risk detracting from collaborations with the world beyond, Ottersen said.

Providing personal feedback on the meeting, which was closed to the press, Ottersen told University World News: “An interesting discussion came up regarding the terms ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’”.

“We – as universities – cannot restrict our collaboration to the EU or to ‘like-minded countries’ in other parts of the world. We sorely need the perspectives also from countries that have preconditions and constraints that differ from our own, such as from countries in the Global South.

“Simply put, excellence depends on a richness of perspectives. Solutions that were developed in the Global South inform and enrich research and health care in the Global North. Thus, reciprocal innovation and symmetric partnerships must be high on the EU’s agenda.”

Challenges to academic freedom

Ottersen said there should, “of course”, be no compromise to academic freedom. “But we do compromise if we withdraw from all countries where academic freedom is being challenged. How should we then promote and disseminate the academic values? Academic freedom is also about the individual researcher’s right to choose the collaborative partner of his/her choice,” he said in emailed comments.

Expanding further, Ottersen said the EU as well as national governments, in the name of “quality”, often “fall into the trap of believing that they should focus, and even limit, international collaborations to countries perceived as being ‘like-minded’” and universities that are highly ranked.

“In essence, this means zooming in on North America, Western Europe, and New Zealand and perhaps Japan – countries that rank high on the democracy index,” he said.

“But what this means in the long run is that we create a dichotomous world – which is unfortunate and which runs counter to the very idea of a university. Universities should remain global in their nature.

“What is even more important: restricting our collaborations to ‘like-minded countries’ deprives us of the richness of perspectives that we need in order to keep up the quality of our education and research, and our commitment to catering to the world at large,” he said.

Ottersen said at the Brussels meeting, he had used the collaboration between the University of Oslo in Norway and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa as an example.

“[It was a] very successful collaboration between my previous university … and a university that is located in a country that is not on the EU’s list of ‘like-minded countries’ and is not to be found in the top tier of university rankings … but collaboration with this university gave us new perspectives that strengthened the quality of our research and education.”

‘Openness to the world’

Ottersen said universities would do well to help translate the EU catchphrase, ‘Openness to the world’ into action, a sentiment he reiterated in his blog.

He described the efforts to strengthen collaboration within Europe and the need to keep open the academic channels with the rest of the world as “a fine balance indeed”.

Ottersen said: “The Eurostat prognosis tells us that the EU’s share of the world’s population will contract to 4% at the turn of the century. The EU will be heavily dependent on the influx of knowledge and innovativeness from the remaining 96%. Universities will play a seminal role in this challenge, serving as portals of knowledge influx from the world at large. Thus, we need to safeguard the academic channels not only within the EU but also with the world beyond.

“Tensions regarding the concepts of excellence and the implications of being open to the world must be discussed in a transparent fashion, through a constructive exchange of views with political decision makers at the national and EU levels. The Nordic University Days were a welcome step in this direction.”

Astrid Söderbergh Widding, rector of Stockholm University, wrote on her blog that while the meeting produced “some core messages that are close to … rectors’ hearts”, there was still a need to “strengthen concrete cooperation between the Nordic universities on questions where we have the same stand.

“It could, for instance, be a sharp defence of the excellence criteria in the evaluation of EU research programme applications. Or it could mean going out in front for open science … Other Nordic countries are on the same path,” she said.

“I, myself, am convinced that the Nordic platform is important both in a European and a global context. But it needs to be attended to with care, without too much politics, but directed more intensely towards our own core questions.”

Freedom of science?

Jukka Mönkkönen, rector of the University of Eastern Finland, told University World News there was a need for a clearer definition of academic freedom.

“Academic freedom is one of the core values of the EU, and also of the Nordic countries. The concept of academic freedom is still unclear, and the definition should be clarified and sharpened. Should we speak rather of the freedom of science and higher education? However, we need [a] more descriptive definition,” he said.

“We have a huge challenge with research careers in light of the EU’s goal of having 700,000 new researchers during the next 10 years. We can, and must, do the best not only in national but also [at the] Nordic and EU levels to make researchers’ careers more attractive and sustainable”.

Criticisms of the fact that the meeting was closed to the press were covered by independent Norwegian news publication Khrono, which quoted Norwegian University of Life Sciences rector Curt Rice as saying he sees no reason to keep the media out.

“I don’t know who made that decision and I certainly don’t understand why they made it,” Rice is quoted as saying.