Universities must help shape the post-COVID-19 world

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Reposted from University World News

By Ira Harkavy, Sjur Bergan, Tony Gallagher and Hilligje van’t Land

“The world will never be the same again.” This is perhaps the least hazardous prediction one can make about the consequence of the COVID-19 crisis. This crisis will surely change all societal institutions, not just the healthcare sector. The precise nature of that change is, at this time, unknowable.

The safe prediction that the world will change leaves open the form and direction this change will take. But it cannot and should not be left unguided, subject to those seeking to re-establish old systems of power. We contend that higher education must play a major role in helping to shape the post-COVID-19 world and do so by reshaping higher education itself.

The post-COVID-19 world must be based on the values we cherish: democracy, human rights and the rule of law as well as social justice, inclusion and equity. Higher education can add momentum by renewing our commitment to our core values of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and engagement by students, faculty and staff, and re-emphasising the role of higher education institutions as societal actors for the public good.

Social solidarity

We are already witnessing elements of this in the midst of the crisis. Higher education institutions, particularly academic medical centres, as well as individual staff and students, have in many instances responded with extraordinary dedication and resolve, providing desperately needed health care and research, helping assure the safety of their students and staff, supporting local businesses, donating medical equipment and teaching their students and engaging with their communities remotely.

Higher education’s role in developing skilled and dedicated doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and other professionals has never been more important. We see medical scientists rapidly repurpose their labs better to understand the virus and engineers repurpose design and production facilities to supply much-needed personal protective equipment. And we see almost unprecedented levels of collaboration and sharing of intelligence in a globally connected race to develop vaccines.

This civic spiritedness, this social solidarity, needs to extend beyond the COVID-19 crisis and become higher education’s defining characteristic.

Echoing the Council of Europe, we contend that there are four purposes of higher education: preparation for sustainable employment, preparing students for active citizenship, personal development, creating a broad advanced knowledge base and stimulating research and innovation.

Current events, however, have led us to reconceptualise these purposes as part of a larger goal, developing and maintaining good democratic communities and societies, characterised by participation, cooperation and a commitment to the public good. Specifically, this involves the education of students for democratic citizenship and the creation of knowledge to advance the human condition.

The need for democracy will be greater in the aftermath of the crisis. We already see attempts by some government leaders to use the crisis to gather more powers into their own hands, in some cases without time limits.

We hear claims that authoritarian systems are better placed to deal with emergencies while forgetting that the tendencies of authoritarian leaders and regimes to hide inconvenient truths helped make COVID-19 a pandemic. We see concerns about rising nationalism and populism, the risk of new forms of autarchy and challenges to international solidarity, as possible outcomes of the crisis, all of which risk casting our democracies as casualties.

Sustaining a culture of democracy

Higher education can and must ensure we take a different course. As participants underlined at a Global Forum we organised with others in June 2019: “Education, including higher education, is responsible for advancing and disseminating knowledge and developing ethical and able citizens. It therefore plays an essential role in modern democratic societies. Education is key to developing, maintaining and sustaining a culture of democracy without which democratic laws, institutions and elections cannot function in practice.”

Higher education institutions, particularly research universities, are among the pre-eminent institutions in societies throughout the world. They are sources of new ideas and discoveries, including technological advances; hosts of cultural and artistic centres that foster creativity; and are local, national and global economic engines.

Most importantly, they teach the teachers and the teachers’ teachers, across all subjects, thereby helping to shape the entire schooling and educational systems at all levels.

Just as we see higher education as shaping the schooling and education systems, we see these systems as shaping the very nature of society itself. We recall the words of the Chilean sociologist Eugenio Tironi to the effect that to decide what kind of education we need we first have to decide what kind of society we want.

Higher education must engage in both debates, on the future of society as well as on the future of education. Democratic education, particularly democratic higher education, is a prerequisite for a fair, inclusive and sustainable democratic society. The COVID-19 crisis will broaden our view of sustainability; it will not make sustainability a less urgent concern.

We therefore think it essential that the democratic, civic university actively engaged with the life and problems of its community and society becomes the model of higher education in the post-COVID-19 world.

Certainly, positive steps have been taken over the past decades in this direction. But they have not been nearly sufficient. Other models of higher education remain dominant, contributing to increasingly savage inequalities and a diminished sense of public purpose.

Education for the public good

The neoliberal entrepreneurial university is a model that has gained increasing currency and power throughout the world, with devastating consequences for the values and aspirations of students, leading to a widespread sense that they are in college exclusively to gain career-related skills and credentials.

Profit for the sake of profit too often appears to be the primary purpose of institutions of higher education. This, of course, has negative impacts on both research and education for the public good.

Returning to a more traditional model, in which the university is detached from society, does not provide an effective counter to the neoliberal university. On the contrary, its internal, disciplinary focus and emphasis on elite education works against core democratic goals such as diversity, inclusion and equity.

The quality and relevance of higher education are also measured by the extent to which it offers possibilities to all students in accordance with their talents and aspirations.

Our argument, simply put, is that to create a better post-COVID-19 world requires democratic civic universities dedicated to producing knowledge and educating ethical, empathetic students for just and sustainable democratic societies.

It is essential for our future that academics, university administrators, government officials, public authorities and community partners work together to assure that what needs to happen does happen.

Ira Harkavy is founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, University of Pennsylvania, United States. He also chairs the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy and the Anchor Institutions Task Force. Sjur Bergan is head of the Education Department, Council of Europe and a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group. Tony Gallagher is professor of education at Queen’s University Belfast and former pro-vice chancellor for academic planning and external affairs. Hilligje van’t Land is secretary general of the International Association of Universities and strongly engaged in higher education and research for sustainable development. All four authors and their organisations are leaders in the development of the democratic mission of higher education.