From principle to practice: Magna Charta proves its worth

It would be hard to find a better illustration of what the new Magna Charta Universitatum means in practice than the ‘exemplary’ way Wroclaw Medical University and other Polish universities responded to the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

A year after the official signing of the updated Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU) saw several hundred university leaders commit to notions of responsiveness and responsibility to society, alongside academic freedom and institutional autonomy, vice-chancellors and rectors are preparing to meet again to see how the principles turned into positive action across Poland during Ukraine’s hour of need.

University leaders and representatives from around the world will be the gathering at the University of Lodz, Poland, from 23 to 25 October for the 2023 Magna Charta Observatory anniversary conference under the theme of “Universities and Re-Construction of Cities: the Role of Research and Education”. University World News is the official media partner of the event.

Poland was deliberately chosen as the venue to allow international delegates to learn first-hand how Polish universities and society responded to the humanitarian and migration crisis. It should also make it easier for a large representation from Ukraine to attend and meet international partner universities, which have shown outstanding solidarity and support.

David J Lock, secretary general of the Magna Charta Observatory, told University World News that the in-person signing of the new Magna Charta Universitatum 2020, was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic until last year’s conference in Bologna, Italy, and it had already proved its relevance in the way universities in Poland, and others around the world, rallied after the Russian Federation invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

Part of a community

Lock said: “Signatories of the MCU are part of a community which has supported Ukraine since the Russian hostilities started and those attending our conference will be able to learn from the experience of Polish universities, such as Wroclaw Medical University, about what it means to be a responsive and responsible university in times of crisis.”

A paper by Dr Agata Strzadala from the department of medical humanities and social sciences at Wroclaw Medical University will be published on the Magna Charta Observatory’s website during the conference, describing the experience of the city of Wroclaw, its universities and students, and other citizens and bodies, as they pulled together when refugees from the fighting arrived, first in their thousands, and then in their hundreds of thousands, from neighbouring Ukraine.

Strzadala told University World News that she still has vivid memories especially of those first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but producing the paper required pulling together diverse sources of information to illustrate the breadth and depth of the response to the emergency.

“Effective communications were essential, and the Wroclaw Medical University website became key in both systemic university actions as well as grassroots initiatives by students, physicians, pharmacists, dentists or other employees and helped me to keep track of the many examples of medical help organised by young doctors in temporary relocation centres and [in] documenting civilian casualties.”

Strzadala received help in keeping a record of what was happening on the ground from the university’s media and communication team and by interviewing people directly involved in the first line of help and those responsible on the organisational level.

These included the Vice-Rector for Building Relations and External Cooperation Affairs Professor Tomasz Zatonski, whom the rector, Professor Piotr Ponikowski, appointed to establish a team to coordinate activity in close cooperation with the local government, other universities and NGOs.

Social impact

Strzadala told University World News: “I wanted to publish this paper because it is a documentation of a quite unique and dramatic situation; I hope we can learn some lessons from it.

“The main purpose was to describe and analyse the social impact of our university and document what was achieved and what requires improvement. In other words, to reflect on the role of [a] university in civic society in the time of migration crisis.”

Asked what the three main lessons were to be drawn from Wroclaw’s experience of helping people fleeing from the Russian aggression next door, Strzadala said: “First, state your position and clearly point out that what is going on is wrong, as well as declaring support, according to your own capacities.

“Constantly re-evaluate what resources you have in terms of people, infrastructure and expertise. Check what the actual needs are and the scale of them to offer accurate help.

“Such accurate help is not always easy, for example, collecting medication or medical equipment requires experts in order to make it safe and effective and to avoid waste of resources and time.

“Then, as I mentioned, effective communication to coordinate actions is essential.”

Strzadala said it was also essential to be open to “grassroot actions” by students or young physicians and others, and support them on an organisational level.

Secondly, psychological help and emotional support as well as empowerment of people in a migration crisis are crucial, she said.

Moreover, those who volunteered or took people into their homes, which was a common situation in Poland, may also need psychological help or some counselling.

“Opening your own home or room to people who just left a war zone, and helping them start a new life in a foreign country, is definitely challenging for all parties involved.

“Lastly, the term refugee or internally replaced person is some abstract category, but in practice it is a real person in a very difficult and dramatic situation that can happen to everyone, me or you, and which takes one by surprise.

“It is important to respect that and keep it in mind when offering some help.”

Asked why the university, and Poland as a whole, was so successful in pulling together, with cities and local communities working together, Strzadala said: “In my opinion, it was possible first of all thanks to the massive movement and involvement of regular citizens all around Poland.”

Solidarity as a living value

“We experienced two different totalitarian systems, the Nazi and communistic one, and we survived as a society because solidarity is a living value for Poles.

“Helping people in need let us survive a difficult past as a society that shares some basic ethical values and led to the emergence of civic society.

“In my view, some things could have been done better or still require improvement and attention, but overall, so to speak, the test for civic society was passed.”

She said signing the Magna Charta Universitatum meant “entering a community of universities all around the globe, which was a great honour but also a great recognition of our responsibility to society”.

She is looking forward to exchanging experiences and expertise worldwide, and also to getting support from colleagues from other universities.

“It will give us some space to reflect more generally on the university, our tasks and our profession, not necessarily in connection to very specific fields or practical outcomes such as publications, ‘points’ or steps in our career, but thinking about our role in global society, a changing world and in relation to the natural environment.”

A powerful illustration

Lock described Dr Strzadala’s paper as “exemplary” in describing how the Wroclaw Medical University responded to the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine and said it was “an outstanding and powerful illustration of what the Magna Charta Universitatum was getting at when it talked about responsibility and being responsive to society”.

Last year University World News looked at what the new Magna Charta Universitatum aimed to achieve in an interview with Professor Chris Brink, a former rector of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, in a feature headlined “Freedom and responsibility: We need equal talk about both” before last year’s Bologna conference of the Magna Charta Observatory.

Lock said the theme of this year’s conference covers the transformation of cities, both that which is necessary due to destruction from war, as is the case in Ukraine, or the loss of traditional industries, changes of climate or social transformations, and will explore the contributions of both research and teaching to reconstruction.

The Magna Charta Observatory now serves almost 1,000 signatories of the Magna Charta Universitatum from 94 countries and information about the conference in Lodz can be found at this link.

Lock said that what Wroclaw Medical University achieved, working with its community, was a fantastic example of responding to the ever-growing needs as the crisis unfolded, from offering scholarships and refuge to lecturers, to forming partnerships and planning ahead for the day when support will be even more valuable in the rebuilding of Ukraine.

“We’re putting space in the programme for representatives from Poland and Ukraine to meet with other universities which are partners and prospective partners. We’ve also invited student leaders from Ukraine and Poland so the conference can hear from the inside,” said Lock.

Research projects

The Magna Charta Observatory has also launched a major new initiative, which it will be reporting on during the conference, to fund research projects looking at what it takes for universities to put into practice the ideal of being responsive and responsible.

Lock said: “We narrowed down the 20 bids that were received and six projects participated in the inaugural meeting. These included a bid from each of Ukraine and Poland, while others came from Bangladesh, Ireland, North Macedonia and Lithuania.

“Projects ranged from empowering women and improving living conditions through better design of rooms in slum communities to linking the curriculum and community action with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, approaches to reducing violence in the community, and an integrated approach to supporting communities enduring hostilities.”

Lock said the projects would be presented at a workshop before the conference starts and papers on all the projects will appear on the Magna Charta Observatory website.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.

This article is published in partnership with the Magna Charta Observatory. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.