Universities’ role in supporting democracy – And the SDGs

Throughout human history nations have implemented many different forms of political, economic and social systems as a means of structuring society and allocating resources.

Examples of such systems include autocratic systems (for example, communism, feudalism, casteism, colonialism and fascism) on one end of the spectrum and democratic systems (for example, participatory, pluralist, representative or elitist systems) on the other end. Since the birth of modern democracy (that is, the American Revolution) and modern capitalism (that is, the Industrial Revolution), the trend has been towards more democratic societies and market economies.

This trend has been punctuated by major reset points over the past 250 years (for example, the American Civil War and the collapse of state-sponsored, institutionalised slavery, World War II and the collapse of fascism and colonialism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism).

All autocratic systems, regardless of form, have one common denominator: the monopolisation of power and resources by the few at the expense of the many. Autocratic systems rely on power and privilege claims whereas democratic systems rely on rights and justice claims.

Over the past few centuries, as people have become more knowledgeable and the world has become more interconnected and interdependent, closed autocracies have become increasingly untenable and indefensible.

However, in recent decades the world has seen a rise in a new breed of autocrat. Today's autocrats have become more adroit in their approach to establishing and maintaining authoritarian states. They do this by creating the facade of a democracy yet running their countries in an authoritarian way.

In these regimes, regular elections are held to give the appearance of democratic processes (electoral autocracies), but the same leaders (or their cronies) keep getting re-elected, thereby monopolising power. This new form of governance is called authoritarian democracy, which is an oxymoron. This new breed of autocrat can claim that their country is a democracy while still monopolising political power.

The central organising principle of any democracy is the principle of self-rule where political and economic power ultimately reside with the people. To ensure this principle is not usurped by autocratic and authoritarian leaders who wish to subvert the democratic process, threats to democracy need to be protected by a highly resilient system of rights, justice and accountability.

Over the past decade the world has experienced a democratic recession where authoritarianism is on the rise. According to the Democracy Report 2022, the majority of the world’s population is currently living under autocratic societies as a result of coups, anti-pluralist polarisation, subversion of democratic processes and the use of misinformation and propaganda to manipulate and control the electorate.

Settling down

How did humanity get to this point? Planet Earth consists of limited resources. Since all living organisms, including humans, need resources (for example, food, shelter) to survive and since the survival instinct is the most basic of all instincts, it follows that organisms will naturally compete, in a variety of ways, for those limited resources.

For humans, before the development of the first agriculture-based communities of the Neolithic Era, living conditions were often brutal and harsh for hunter-gatherer humans. One only need imagine what pre-Neolithic life was like before the development of permanent communities based on government (that is, the rule of law), social norms (that is, informal rules) and agriculture (that is, the domestication of animals and plants).

Thus, with the development of permanent settlements, humans began to develop a more efficient and effective way to survive. They did this by settling mainly around river systems (for a fresh water supply) and by developing new methods to manage their own food supply.

Instead of continually moving from one place to another (that is, a roaming lifestyle) in search of transitory food supplies, where they were at the whims of nature, humans took advantage of the benefits of settling in one geographic location (that is, a stationary lifestyle).

The act of creating permanent settlements was perhaps the most significant act in human history for it created a major paradigm shift in how people lived, how they viewed the world and how they interacted with each other and the natural world. In short, it changed every aspect of human life – biologically, psychologically and socially.

For example, creating permanent settlements required people to learn in ways never before imagined. Permanent settlements required that people learn how to build permanent housing, houseware, food preservation and storage facilities, transportation devices, tools and all the infrastructure needed to support a community.

As such, over time, small farming communities grew into villages (a few hundred to a few thousand inhabitants) which grew into towns (a few thousand to several thousand inhabitants) which grew into cities. Some of the cities created hundreds or even thousands of years ago are now morphing into megacities and metacities.

Many of the basic principles of governance and trade can be traced back to these early settlements. Humans realised that permanent settlements were a better way to survive in an often unforgiving and predatory natural environment. Thus, since the Neolithic era humans around the world have gradually replaced the survival of the fittest paradigm – kill or be killed – with the social community paradigm.

Agriculture allowed people to grow a variety of foods and store some of it for future consumption when the need was greatest, thereby allowing humans to better manage the risk associated with food consumption and production.

Since agriculture dramatically increased food productivity, it allowed people to specialise (that is, the division of labour) in other forms of work such as wood working, brick making, pottery making, tool making, art work, etc, which in turn created a new era of knowledge development, which in turn eventually led to the development of the arts, crafts, trades and professions.

The evolution of capitalism

Every society must determine how it will allocate its limited resources. Over the course of human history, there have been three basic ways by which societies have been organised to accomplish this undertaking. One way is through tradition. Another way is through central planning (command economy). And another way is through markets (market economy).

History suggests that pure command economies are economically inefficient and inequitable, which is one of the factors behind the demise of many communist countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The most widespread economic system today is capitalism. Capitalism has many variations depending on the country and it is continually evolving. It is characterised by different proportions of private ownership of capital, and certain degrees of freedom in production, trade and capital flows as well as some public property and state involvement in the economy in order to mitigate the negative outcomes such as pollution, unemployment and inflation.

Therefore, nearly all economies today are mixed economies to one degree or another but with markets and competition serving as the basis for innovation and growth. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism has shifted from mercantilism and merchant capitalism to industrial capitalism. The world is now in the fourth wave (Industry 4.0) of industrial capitalism.

In recent decades, the most developed countries have shifted to post-industrial capitalism wherein the service sector has eclipsed the agriculture and manufacturing sectors.

The economic crises faced by humanity in recent decades have raised warning signs regarding capitalism. But certain specialists consider periods of crisis to be inherent stages in the evolution of capitalism as countries continue to fine-tune their monetary, fiscal and trade policies in order to minimise these crises. Nonetheless, the period of the last few decades suggests that uncertainty and risk will be the new normal heading into the future.

The evolution of democracy

A democracy is considered to be the preferred form of government in many countries because democracy is a form of government where the country’s political leaders are held accountable by the people through fair elections and a balance of power.

Compared to autocratic governments, elected governments are more likely to lead in response to the concerns, needs and points of view of society. Government behaviour should be undertaken in a transparent and accountable way and in a manner where the people are free to question and critique the government and their actions. To this end, freedom of speech and expression are the cornerstone principles of any free society.

Democracies should be grounded in a humane rule of law, where fundamental human rights and justice are legally protected. After basic rights and justice are secured, the debate is then focused on the quality and resilience of the democracy which considers the quality of democratic inputs (for example, elections, accountability and the rule of law) and democratic outputs (for example, quality of life, liberty and personal security).

Although all democratic societies have differences based on their own cultural-historical-religious contexts, all democracies should be based on the basic principle of self-rule, where the will of the people is represented in government.

The rise in democracy over the past 250 years is reflective of the human desire to be self-determining free agents. All else being equal, political leaders who are elected by the people through fair and open electoral processes are more likely to be respected and followed by their people.

However, in recent years we have seen the rise of authoritarian democracies, where governments claim to represent the people but without the full protection of rights and justice for their citizens.

The relation between democracy and human development is complex and this is where, perhaps, the debate about democracy evolves towards a debate about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Will the SDGs take us to higher standards of human development in the quest for better democracies?

The role of higher education institutions

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015 provides a collective blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet. In particular, the emphasis on the “eradication of poverty” and “access to quality education for all” provides hope for a better future.

In particular, SDG 16 states that nations should “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. This goal has 12 targets such as promoting the rule of law, ensuring equal access to justice, developing accountable and transparent institutions, including higher education institutions, and ensuring responsive, inclusive and representative decision-making.

Authentic democracy is a global common good and, as history has suggested, the best hope for the survival and development of humanity and the protection of the planet. As such, academia and civil society play an important role in promoting and cultivating democratic interests throughout the world.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all model of democracy, just as there is no one-size-fits-all model for capitalism, there are basic principles that all authentic democracies share, namely: the protection of human rights as described in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the protection of democratic principles as described in the Inter-Parliamentary Union Universal Declaration on Democracy.

Achieving the SDGs will depend, in large measure, on preserving and strengthening democracies around the world. Unlike other forms of political governance, authentic democracies are self-correcting in that they are designed to respond to changes in society and to the will of the people.

Higher education, as a producer of knowledge, and civil society, as a community of non-governmental and non-business actors, have a responsibility to promote the common good.

In this regard, higher education institutions have a remarkable role to play through increasing access to quality education, raising awareness of the global SDGs among faculty and students and engaging with community and stakeholders to achieve the goals. Universities are indeed well placed to deal with global challenges through inter/transdisciplinary and sustainability-driven research and serve as a bridge between scientists and policy-makers.

Patrick Blessinger is president and chief scientist for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning (HETL) Association, USA. Fareeda Khodabocus is director of quality assurance at the University of Mauritius. Mirela Panait is an associate professor at the Petroleum-Gas University of Ploiesti in Romania. Beena Giridharan is a professor and former deputy pro vice-chancellor at Curtin University, Malaysia. Patrick Blessinger was interviewed about sustainable internationalisation and globalisation as well as about HETL and ChatGPS in Live in the Moment podcast in December.