A meeting with a premise: Universities as change agents

The relevance and value of higher education in future society will be discussed at the International Association of Universities’ (IAU’s) 16th quadrennial General Conference in Dublin, Ireland, from 25-28 October.

At the heart of each question the conference will deal with is the belief that universities are vital agents of change that have the ability – indeed, the moral duty – to shape local and global agendas.

For instance, the sessions include “From Science to Society: How to reach out beyond the academic circle and unlock the sciences”, “Forming a Reliable Social Contract with Civil Society: Putting fundamental values into practice” and “Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development: What is the role for university leadership”.

“The International Association of Universities is the only global association that brings higher education leaders from around the world together to discuss key issues that will help reshape the higher education sector in order to better serve society,” says Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of IAU, who has worked for the Paris-based organisation headquartered at UNESCO for over two decades.

“We bring together leaders from five continents on matters ranging from the management of universities, value-based education, the future of internationalisation, sustainable development, and how universities have engaged with the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.”

University World News is the media partner for the conference, which was originally due to take place in 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Readers can register to participate here.

First proposed in the 1930s, the IAU was founded in 1950 in the same global spirit as the founding of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank established at a Bretton Woods conference in New Hampshire (US) in 1944 and the United Nations (1945).

According to its constitution, the IAU’s aim is to “provide a centre of cooperation at the international level among the universities and similar institutions of higher education of all countries, as well as among organisations in the field of higher education generally, and to advocate for their concerns”.

Over-emphasis on STEM

Among the threats Van’t Land sees to higher education – and which will be addressed in sessions such as “Skills, Competencies and Knowledge for Unwritten Futures: Where do we go from here?” at which one presenter will be Hassan Rashid Al-Derham, president of Qatar University – are the overemphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programmes and the commodification of education in a sector that is increasingly privatised.

The two are intrinsically interlinked, she says, because both view the purpose of higher education as being about producing employees rather than educated, critically thinking citizens of the world.

When I brought up a recent spate of articles in the United States showing that almost 50% of humanities graduates regret studying the humanities and the fact that the recent study, Economic Well-Being of US Households in 2021 by the US Federal Reserve Board, did not take into account the high employment rates of these graduates, Van’t Land said the IAU has spent decades trying to counter the argument that STEM programmes are the only ones that produce value.

“Science, technology, engineering, maths are all technical aspects of what makes the life of a business. But is life all about that? No, it’s not. And, also, business itself is not made up of STEM people and STEM approaches to reality,” she says.

In place of STEM, she calls for ESTEAM – education, science, technology, arts and maths – education. “If we want to move into the future with the kind of citizens that have an appreciation for diversity and appreciation for connecting the unconnected, for innovating and appreciating how we want to actually address the global challenges we face, we have a unique opportunity to educate students as critical thinkers and engaged citizens,” says Van’t Land.

The corporatisation of higher education includes the growth of private for-profit colleges and universities, of which, for example, there are more than 1,600 in the United States, and nearly 15 million of India’s university student population of 35 million attend private higher education institutions.

Recognising that some of these private for-profit schools preyed on poor students in the US, in many cases minority students, unable to access other schools, the US has cancelled billions of dollars in debt these students ran up attending these schools, some of which went bankrupt before students could graduate.

“I don’t believe that private for-profit higher education is a model that will help any of us,” Van’t Land told University World News. “

António Nóvoa, one of the major authors of the 2021 UNESCO report, Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education, stressed that universities are institutions unlike any other. Their strength and usefulness lie precisely in this difference. The day they lose their specificity, allowing themselves to be governed by market rules or commodification trends, they will become useless.

“The IAU is challenging models that would favour private for-profit institutions. They divert universities from their primary vision and mission, and tailor what they do to ‘clients’ rather than to students – clients who then become the ‘boss’ and decide on what to study and how, while they do not always know what they may need to be exposed to in order to develop the kind of knowledge and education they actually need to move into the future.”

The corporatisation of higher education can also be seen, we discussed, even within the publicly funded sphere. This comes with the erosion of academic freedom and university autonomy, essential values to develop quality higher education, free from political and economic interference.

For example, just a few days ago, Jason Kenney, the outgoing premier of the province of Alberta, Canada, appointed a commission of business leaders in agriculture, banking, construction, tourism and, most importantly given the central role the oil industry plays in Alberta’s economy, energy, to advise on how to restructure Alberta’s higher education sector and course offerings.

While making the announcement, Kenney, referencing the news reports from the US about humanities graduates’ regrets, attacked liberal arts programmes saying they produced only “modest” or “very poor” employment outcomes. Publicly funded higher education should, he said, align itself with labour market demands, chiefly the extraction of oil from the tar sands where 1.7 trillion barrels of heavy oil is mixed with sand.

“It’s incredibly sad to see Alberta go in this direction. Tar sand companies’ interests and corporate interests at large should not play a role in how universities are governed. Today, we need new energy sources to respond to the many needs of the world and we need these now.

“So why not use the fact that fossil fuels are becoming rare and that their use is detrimental to the planet to reinvent ourselves before it’s too late. This short-sighted vision of certain companies should not define where we are allowed to go in education. It is just unbelievable when they do so,” says Van’t Land.

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