Cristina Escrigas is the Executive Director of GUNI. Previously, she worked for over two years in the Universal Forum of Cultures, as Director of Participation, encouraging civil organizations to become involved in promoting the Forum and its program. She also worked in the creation and development of the knowledge bank where the Forum’s main ideas and contents have been published.
Her specialization is organization development and strategic management. She was working on strategic management and institutional change at the UPC for 8 years and was Director of the Seminar on Strategic University Management for five years. She was also Director of the UNESCO Chair of Higher Education Management. She has been working on strategic planning for several universities in Spain.
She is Social Psychologist (Autonomous University of Barcelona, UAB) and holds an MBA and a Master in Training of Trainers, Methodology and Management (UPC), and a Master in Organization Development (GR Institute).
The third report `Higher Education in the World´ is about to be presented at the 4th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education, which starts on 31 March. Cristina Escrigas, GUNI’s Executive Director, talks about its contents and main ideas.
Putting the role of higher education on the agenda
The third GUNI report on Higher Education in the World is now ready to be presented publicly. What is the main subject of the report?
The report essentially proposes that we need to review the role that higher education currently plays in society. We must also openly address whether the knowledge generated by research and the one disseminated through teaching is the most suitable for addressing the problems facing humanity.
The report’s title is Higher Education: New Challenges and Emerging Roles for Human and Social Development. We aim to make serious contributions to thought and analysis on the contribution of higher education. For many years, there was controversy over whether investment in education was a priority, particularly in developing countries. Today, nobody doubts the value or the necessity of higher education. Nevertheless, in times of major, worldwide change, it is essential to consider what higher education’s role is and what it should be its contribution.
Higher education institutions have always been committed to social service and the public good. However, the report proposes that we need to reconsider the interchange of value between universities and society, that is, we should rethink universities’ social relevance.
What is the context of the report?
You only need to watch the news on the television, read the newspapers or even go to the cinema to have a fairly accurate idea of what is going on in the world. We are at the point in history in which most technological advances are being made and most resources are being devoted to education. It can be said that there is also more knowledge than ever, but there are also major conflicts.
Without wanting to be reductionist, there are two main areas of conflict: those that arise from the coexistence of people and those that are derived from the relation between people and the environment in which they live — the natural environment. The first type of conflict involves social injustice, marginalisation, inequality of wealth distribution, abuse and violations of human rights, a lack of democratic organisation, the inability of cultures and peoples to understand each other and, of course, wars and armed conflicts. With respect to the second type of conflict, people now accept that natural resources are being depleted and overexploited, that climate change is occurring, and that development has been unsustainable to date. In short, we are so used to all of these issues that we no longer ask ourselves the obvious questions: Where should we be focussing our efforts? What should the priority be? Are we doing as much as we can, or are we still driven by the weight of inertia or the interests of a few? Or, of greater concern, have we resigned ourselves to what we consider inevitable?
I would like to highlight two of the key issues that could shed light on these situations: one is knowledge; the other is individual willingness and its collective engagement.
What does the world need today?
I cannot answer this question. What I can say is that we need to answer this question, particularly if we consider that we can influence the world we live in and that society is constructed by all of us. Perhaps what the world needs is for us to realise that things depend more on each individual gesture than we really believe. I think that what the world needs is for us to pay a little attention to it, in order to create paths towards a coexistence that is more sustainable than the present model. I think that it needs us to be more aware of the collective implications of our individual behaviour. We have depersonalised life and societies. We have forgotten the individual —the person — behind the institutions, companies, parties, behind the system itself.
How is this report related to the two previous ones?
Each report deals with a specific topic at global and regional level. The three topics we have worked on to date — financing, quality and the role of higher education — are three significant aspects of higher education in the world. They are all of key importance in the analysis of the social commitment of higher education. They were also defined as priority topics in the document drawn up at the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in 1998. GUNI was formed after this conference. Its mission is to promote the agreements arising from UNESCO Conference. Thus, we are following our mandate.
Who participated in the report?
This is a joint publication, involving the participation of 52 authors from 28 countries. There are 14 main contributions — 6 of which are regional — 29 special contributions and 15 good practices. This is fundamental to present a multifaceted view and ensure that the analyses and proposals are diverse and rich in content. Our aim is to encourage debate, not to provide a solution. This year, not all of the participating authors are experts in higher education. Contributors also included experts in economics, politics, development and participation. This reflects one of the key ideas proposed by the report: different disciplines and areas of knowledge should be linked in order to attain a holistic understanding of reality.
The need to promote coexistence between people and with the environment is now on many political agendas. What new information does the report provide on this issue?
Certainly, many international frameworks are emerging: the Millennium Development Goals, the Kyoto Protocol, the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Education for All, the United Nations’ Decade for Education for Sustainable Development, the Alliance of Civilisations’ Report of the High Level Group, among many other regional initiatives. These frameworks do not in themselves represent a guarantee of positive change. Higher education could ask itself what its contribution to these frameworks should be. Education and research play a key role in attaining these goals. This is particularly true in developing countries, which have the most pressing needs. However, education and research are also essential in developed countries, which have shaped the model of society and consequently that of universities as social actors. Therefore, the challenge is great for all institutions.
In this report, we propose that there is a need for analysing the role of knowledge in our society. We consider which knowledge for what kind of society and how universities should define their role in this respect. We assume that the main value of higher education is to serve the common good, at a time in which what we understand by “good” and what we understand by “common” is difficult to define.
What specific proposals does the report contain to meet this objective?
We are at the first step in the process, which is usually that of questioning the issue. Different ways of bringing about change could arise from this initial phase. This debate is not new; the context has changed indeed in the last years, but UNESCO and the United Nations University—both founding members of GUNI—have also put this issue on the table at different times (in the World Conference on Higher Education in 1998), as well as relevant members of the academic community worldwide. However, the debate itself must be carried out by all of the agents involved. This is a serious debate: the better it is, the better the conclusions will be and the richer the proposals. It is a fundamental topic that should not be hurried, instead rigor is required. Consensus should be attained on basic ideas, on which diversity can then be constructed.
Our approach is both propositive and constructive, but we question, for example, whether higher education institutions are being proactive or reactive in the face of social changes. Do they answer to part or all of society? Do they prioritise what is fundable or what is strategic for the well-being of nations? Do they generate new models of knowledge and contribute to the renewal of thought and ideas or are they just repositories of accepted knowledge that hamper the questioning of knowledge and its renewal? Are they active agents in constructing society or on the margins of the initiatives that are working for a better world for all? We question whether institutions are involved in and support these roles of human and social development or whether some of their academics take on such tasks in an individual and isolated way.
We discuss to what extent do universities’ research agendas coincide with the priority agenda for development in the world and with the agendas for the social problems on a global and local level that have been identified? In 1996, 90% of health research was addressed to the problems of 10% of the population. This is just one piece of data provided by one of the authors of the report and serves to illustrate our argument.
We all accept that science and technology play a predominant role in making the world a better place. Today, knowledge generation is increasingly focused on meeting the demands of those who can pay for it, principally in the production sector. However, human knowledge should be considered an asset for everyone, particularly the knowledge generated by institutions that serve the public. Thus, we should reconsider the priorities, finance them, and disseminate the achievements for the wellbeing of the whole society and not just for economic reasons. If this topic is debated, we will have taken a major step.
The world of today is complex and interdisciplinary. Thus, the fragmentation of educational contents into disciplines is unlikely to be maintained as a way of understanding and explaining reality. Our era has many, complex implications for education. However, the question is whether the cost of ignoring these issues could be greater for the institutions, as they stand today, than the cost of facing up to them. This is another issue that needs to be considered.
We understand that this is a profound and serious debate and we do not aim to bring it to a conclusion. We do not provide a solution because we do not have one. Sometimes, a solution arises when a good question is asked. It is more important for us to ask what interchange of value with society is needed for higher education to play a relevant role in higher education in the context of globalisation.
The report will be presented at the 4th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education. How is this conference different to previous ones?
We have taken another step towards making this a participative conference that encourages debate. We have scheduled round tables with very short presentations and questions for debate. For the first time, we have set up eight thematic workshops in parallel sessions, based on a call for papers and a poster session with more than 60 posters. Finally, we are going to present the regional analyses in one session, so that the diversity and singularity of each region can be appreciated as well as common issues that can be tackled to facilitate the contribution of higher education to human and social development.
What are the most important messages that GUNI expects participants to take with them?
Basically reflections from the debates. For example, in recent years, institutions have come under a lot of pressure to meet social needs. This has been explicitly linked to training individuals with technical and specialised knowledge, focused on a specific professional practice. Such knowledge can contribute to generating financial wealth under parameters of increasing competitiveness. Although professional training and wealth generation are necessary, we must revise and decide how education should be undertaken.
Higher education trains people who will reach positions of responsibility in society and in the labour market during the course of their careers. The decisions made by university-trained professionals are of key importance to wealth creation and the development of countries. Decision-making can be carried out using approaches that have a positive or negative effect on the overall progress of humanity and societies. Higher education therefore plays a decisive and fundamental role with respect to the contents of courses, as well as the values and the abilities that they incorporate.
It is essential to rethink the academic contents of curricula in order to incorporate contents, abilities and values such as the following: a profound understanding of human behaviour, societies and life, and of sustainable development as a collective social process that must be learnt; the need for mutual recognition, understanding and respect between different cultures and for diversity; the ability to deal with the expansion of technology, but to give it a human face and tackle its adverse effects and the ethical questions that it raises etc. All of the professions affect and interact with some of these items, or even with all of them. It is essential to break the hegemony of conformity of thought to be able to advance rapidly in a globalised society. Therefore, we should accept the complexity of reality and the interdependence of all areas of knowledge from a truly interdisciplinary approach to education.