Magna Charta urges post-industrial cities to pull together

Universities should not only pull together across disciplines and across continents to help solve the problems facing the world, but they must also work with their local communities to tackle the growing societal challenges, particularly those facing post-industrial cities and regions, but also those trying to recover from natural disasters and conflict.

That was the key message from the Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU) anniversary conference hosted by the University of Lodz, Poland, from 23-25 October 2023 and organised by the Magna Charta Observatory around the theme of ‘Universities and reconstruction of cities: the role of research and education’. University World News was the media partner.

Professor Ed Brinksma, president of Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, told delegates how his university had been originally created on the eve of the First World War in 1913 as a school of science and commerce by those running the port and how during its various guises it had maintained its close links with the city.

Steering port to green transition

From widening its disciplinary base by merging with the Medical Faculty Rotterdam in 1973 to close collaboration with nearby Delft University of Technology, it is now helping to steer Europe’s largest port on its route to a green transition.

“That’s quite a tall order for a port which grew to be one of the world’s largest based on fossil fuel trade,” said Brinksma.

However, with most of Rotterdam technically below sea level, the impact of climate change poses a very real threat, not just to the university but also for the population of the city.

Helping to navigate these choppy waters, Erasmus University is working closely with other ports and cities through one of the European Union-backed European university alliances: UNIC, the European University of Cities in Post-industrial Transition.

The alliance recently expanded from eight to 10 institutional members with the University of Lodz in Poland and the University of Malmo in Sweden joining.

The collaboration has already led to an integrated transnational study programme called Redesigning the Post-Industrial City (RePIC), a two-year, English-taught joint masters degree, involving a broad range of partners from government, industry and the public as well as universities.

Pool resources and expertise

Brinksma said it was important to pool resources and expertise to tackle challenges like rising sea-levels and this was best done by international collaboration and developing new cross-disciplinary programmes to produce the people capable of engineering transition management.

“You need new research approaches involving the community … and you need international collaboration to share best practices and find the answers,” he said.

Brinksma stressed that UNIC was as much a network of cities as a network of universities, with civic leaders fully involved as well as academics and researchers.

Drawing on experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, Erasmus University and its medical centre has also partnered with TU Delft to open the Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Center (PDPC) to bring researchers together to study future virus outbreaks and disasters and better prepare for such calamities in the future.

Other issues under the microscope at the Rotterdam-based university include inequality and health; migration and integration and issues facing challenged neighbourhoods with “city labs working together with local citizens”, said Brinksma, who accepted that “people have their own understanding of their problems and universities are not seen as their first natural partner”.

Transforming the American Midwest

John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center, which brings together ideas and network-building to advance Michigan’s economic transformation and the Great Lakes-Midwest region of the United States of America, told the conference that most countries have ‘rust belts’ – former heavy industrial heartlands that have gone into severe decline in recent decades.

Once they powered the nation’s economy. Now the steel works and textile mills are gone, he said.

However, some communities have rebuilt themselves and universities have played a leading role in their transformation, whether it is Pittsburgh in the US, Manchester in the North of England or the Ruhr in Germany.

“Pittsburgh is a great example. Once it was a centre of our steel industry, but the total collapse in the 70s and 80s led to a brain drain and young people fleeing,” said Austin.

However, by leaning into its assets and with the university playing a key role it has regenerated to become a tech leader in America.

“Pittsburgh now looks like a thriving global city, but towns outside where they lost their anchor are struggling” and what these communities lack is a university to bring in fresh talent and prevent a brain drain,” said Austin.

“Manchester [in the UK] was the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Built on textiles, we called it a ‘Cotton polis’ because all our cotton went there.

“The mills are long gone, but it has got universities and now has the largest relative student population of any town or city in the UK. It is rewriting itself just as Lodz is as a life sciences creative and cultural capital and drawing in young talent,” said Austin.

What this means for countries with scores of post-industrial cities and regions is that “you can’t have too many universities and colleges”, explained Austin.

View from Asia

Giving the view from Asia, Dr Pornchai Mongkhonvanit, president of Siam University, Thailand, and chair of the advisory board of the Association of Universities in Asia and the Pacific, welcomed the call for greater international collaboration from the Magna Charta conference.

He said Asia has three quarters of the world’s population and three of the fastest growing economies, with China, Japan and India, but it also produces half of the world’s carbon dioxide.

To solve the problems this creates requires the “full participation and cooperation of Asia”. However, the continent has a lot of cultural diversity and shouldn’t be seen as one place.

Among the collaborative initiatives he mentioned was the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, a continent-wide forum which “constitute the missing link in Asia by incorporating every Asian country and building an Asian Community without duplicating other organisations or creating a bloc against others”.

He said citizens had more trust in universities than governments and people needed “safe spaces” where they can discuss and find solutions to growing problems, such as the impact of climate change which is causing regular flooding in cities like Bangkok.

Asia is also facing the challenges of ageing societies, a particular challenge for Korea, Japan and Thailand and “we need to work together and have networks to work across disciplines and listen to the people who have lost trust in many organisations, but they still have trust in us”, he said.

University World News Editor in Chief Brendan O’Malley delivered a keynote speech on how education can contribute to conflict and how it can contribute to peace. He said: “You can only build lasting peace if you address the motives and causes of violence [in conflicts], which usually involves addressing deeply held grievances such as systemically unequal or unfair treatment.”

But he warned that in some cases education policies or practice are contributing to those grievances and this must be addressed if universities are to contribute to peace.

The MCU document contains principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy as a guideline for good governance and self-understanding of universities in the future. It also contains an acknowledgement that universities “have a responsibility to engage with and respond to the aspirations and challenges of the world and to the communities they serve”.

Hosted in Lodz, itself a post-industrial city transitioning from a centre of textile manufacturing into a high-tech green economy, many of the conference participants were staying at a hotel at Manufaktura, refashioned out of an old textile plant.

The conference had 130 participants, mostly university presidents and senior university leaders from 37 countries, including 15 representatives from neighbouring war-torn Ukraine.

The conference in Lodz saw 34 new signatories of the Magna Charta Universitatum from 12 countries, among them three Ukrainian universities, meaning over 900 universities from all continents have signed it. The application form can be found here.

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