Call to deepen universities’ role in peace and security

The importance of strengthening the role of universities in fostering peace and security through engagement with governments was highlighted at a global meeting of more than 75 university leaders in Tokyo last week, convened by Keio University.

The message will be conveyed to political leaders at the upcoming Group of Seven (G7) Summit of the world’s major economies, which will be hosted by Japan in Hiroshima in May.

The push for an active peace role for higher education by the U7+ Alliance of university heads from five continents – which was set up to outline collective action on global challenges in coordination with G7 and other government leaders – takes on a special significance as global powers struggle to contain the ongoing war in Ukraine and amid rising diplomatic tensions between the West and China. Other ongoing conflicts such as the Syrian war also need urgent resolution.

More than 75 university leaders from 16 countries met at Keio University on 16-17 March calling on G7 leaders to invest in peace and security education at all levels. Universities should support research on peace and security issues, the universities’ statement known as the ‘Tokyo Statement’ on ‘universities as engines of innovation for peace and security’ said.

The statement adopted by the university presidents was delivered to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on 15 March in his capacity as G7 host.

“Universities are the venues where high-level information development is taking place. As a result, universities have the necessary skills to contribute to long-term peace. Our mission is to encourage action,” Kohei Itoh, president of Keio University, told the academic conference.

“It is the aim of universities to avoid wars and to work to create a peaceful and progressive society through diplomacy that is driven by learning and human interactions,” Itoh added.

Japan’s role

Motohiro Tsuchiya, vice-president for global engagement and information technology at Keio University, told University World News earlier: “The Keio tradition is promoting discussion and dialogue and academic freedom.”

“There is an increase in the support of the public to beefing up Japan’s defence strategy against the Ukraine war and [against] the risk of a conflict between China and Taiwan. This backdrop has raised awareness of the need for Japan to be more prepared,” he said, explaining the importance of the focus on peace and security for Japan’s G7 role.

“Japan is the host of US bases and therefore a target. This is the reason why Japan cannot avoid a commitment,” he said.

Academics pointed to the decision by Japan to hold the May G7 Summit in Hiroshima as bolstering the international message of peace. Hiroshima, along with Nagasaki, experienced the horror of atomic bombing in 1945 by Allied forces and now leads the call for the prohibition of nuclear weapons globally.

Keio has a strong research base in peace and security, and its academics and researchers are frequent participants in government diplomacy advisory panels. “Keio University is a participant in the Japanese government’s plans for a revised national defence strategy as a member of an informal group of advisors,” Tsuchiya said, noting that academics and researchers were involved in drafting the necessary documents toward the revision.

The role of constitutional law professors whose research influences the recent parliamentary debate on revisions to Japan’s post-war Constitution, is another key contribution of academics to national peace and security.

But Tsuchiya also noted that “universities can contribute to the humanitarian aspects of a conflict such as through science and technology”.

Academics defined the new era of peace and security education as seeking innovative research geared to meet emerging issues – a case in point is the addition of cybersecurity research to the agenda, aimed to reduce the risk of hackers disrupting governments.

Universities can have an impact

Universities’ role in peace and security is much broader than diplomacy and defence, however. The Tokyo statement highlighted that “G7 governments should invest in education that fosters deeper cross-border and cross-cultural understanding by working with universities to enhance student mobility on a global scale by reducing visa and financial barriers”.

“G7 governments should direct new resources towards access to education in conflict zones or for those displaced by conflict,” it said.

It also highlighted the importance of protecting academic freedom in conflict situations and the rise of autocratic governments. “Democratic governments must support academic freedom in educational and research institutions and safeguard open debate on policy issues surrounding peace and security and must pursue policies that protect researchers and students from pressure from domestic or foreign governments,” the statement said.

Academic freedom called for diverse stand points and was stressed as crucial to achieving positive peace. In Japan, for instance, a debate about military research in universities is pitching proponents against critics who accuse the government of reducing academic civilian research freedom.

“Universities are committed to work together to help the next generation of leaders understand the cause of conflict and the need to overcome differences for long-term world peace and security. We ask the G7 leaders to make the same commitment,” said Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, Canada, and chair of the U7+ Presidential Steering Committee.

Another pillar for peaceful societies is fostering cross-border and cross-cultural understanding against a landscape of high global student mobility. The conference pointed to the need for governments to take steps to reduce visa and financial barriers for students and scholars in conflict areas.

Peace also meant inclusion of more women and youth and cultural minorities and voices from the Global South, according to the university leaders.

Changing world order

“Traditional peace was mostly centred on the United States as the leader. But the changed world order with the emergence of active participation from diverse countries in the world [means] there is more recognition of the voices from the Global South,” explained Annelise Riles, Northwestern University Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs executive director and the university’s associate provost for global affairs.

It is important to leverage transnational university networks to ensure differing national perspectives and concerns are reflected in research and practice rather than taking on a single national perspective as universal, she told the conference.

The academic conference addresses the ongoing challenges on the ground. The Ukraine war has caused the outpouring of displaced Ukrainian civilians who have fled to other European countries. Universities around the world have been at the forefront of accepting Ukrainian students, providing free tuition and accommodation.

Another case in point was the closing of national borders for almost two years from 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, badly disrupting the studies of foreign students – many were forced to stop their studies.

Academics also pointed to research to address the challenge of the decreasing number of aged survivors of major wars and the need to record their experiences for future generations. For example, Riles is currently engaged in a project with the city of Nagasaki that includes documenting the testimony of atomic bomb survivors.

The U7+ conference was launched in Paris in 2019 as a platform to foster exchanges and networking between universities and governments.

The University of Toronto currently chairs the committee, whose members include Georgetown University and Keio University, while Northwestern University in Illinois, United States, serves as the U7+ secretariat.

This is the first in a series of articles on the Sustainable Development Goals in partnership with Japan’s Keio University. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.