Joint action to improve the impact of university development cooperation: Catalan universities promote an University Development Cooperation Plan

Vilalta, Josep; Gmelch Nadja

In this article Josep Vilalta and Nadja Gmelch of the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP) talk about the “Plan for University Cooperation for Development 2011 – 2015 (UDC Plan)” and its fundamental role in enhancing the effectiveness, impact and quality of university development cooperation carried out by the Catalan public universities


Today, nobody doubts that higher education, research and innovation are key factors for the sustainable social, cultural and economic development of society. The structural changes occurring in recent years demonstrate the fundamental role played by knowledge and its effective use to ensure competitiveness and social welfare. In this context, universities represent key players in creating strong economies and societies through knowledge and expertise. A highly skilled population and investment in research and innovation are basic requirements for economic growth and the social and cultural progress of societies.

Nowadays it is widely acknowledged that higher education, through teaching, research and community engagement, also plays a key role in promoting economic and social development in partner countries. Such relevance has not been fully recognised although a couple of decades ago, it was believed that higher education provided lower economic and social return than basic education.

The Catalan universities have a long tradition of working with universities in partner countries in order to improve their effectiveness, quality and relevance, and assure that they can contribute to the development of their countries. Nevertheless, it currently exist some difficulties, both at university level as well as regarding instruments and financing on behalf of the government, to assure the intended impact of university development cooperation activities. Following international efforts to improve the impact and quality of development cooperation, as well as the wish to overcome these difficulties, the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP) who represents the eight public Catalan universities, propelled the elaboration of the “Plan for University Cooperation for Development 2011 – 2015 (UDC Plan)”. The UDC Plan represents a joint strategy to address the crucial contribution of higher education to development and the education of responsible citizens. With this document, the Universitat de Barcelona (UB), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Universitat de Girona (UdG), Universitat de Lleida (UdL), Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) reaffirm and advance their commitment to promote human and sustainable development.

Why a joint plan for university development cooperation

The main objective of the UDC Plan is to contribute to enhancing the effectiveness, impact and quality of university development cooperation carried out by the Catalan public universities. Therefore, it counts with six priority action lines as well as twenty six concrete strategies which the Catalan universities wish to put into practice during the next five years. Below we would like to exemplify the functioning of the plan by stressing three of its main ideas.


Over recent years, Catalan public universities have been carrying out university development cooperation (UDC) actions on an individual basis. Recognizing the vital importance of these activities and initiatives by each university, the UDC Plan lays down the basis for coordinated action by Catalan public universities, with the aim of achieving a greater impact from Catalan UDC, both in partner countries and in Catalonia. Promoting the focus of each university in the areas in which they have greater expertise, the UDC Plan proposes to join forces to act together, thus promoting the interdisciplinary and complementary nature existing within the Catalan public university system. At the same time it fosters the essential building of bridges for dialogue between the universities and other development actors and public administrations in Catalonia. The main objective in this regard is therefore to consolidate inter-university cooperation for the benefit of each university and the entire Catalan public university system, as well as to promote synergies between universities and other development actors in Catalonia.

By promoting inter-university cooperation, the UDC Plan represents a further step in the overall strategy of the Catalan public universities, initiated in 2008 with the publication of the White Paper of the University of Catalonia and reinforced with the elaboration of the Internationalization Plan of the Public Catalan Universities in 2010. All these initiatives and strategic documents are based on the idea that together and in a collaborative way you can reach further than on your own.

To put these proposals into practice, ACUP is promoting, for instance, a long term cooperation program with universities in sub-Saharan Africa, with the main objective to create stable, long term alliances in the three main university areas: training, research and knowledge transfer. To this end and in order to improve capacities in the area of university management, the eight universities which form ACUP together with five African universities (Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Université d’Antananarivo, Université de Yaoundé I, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane and Universidad Nacional de Guinea Equatorial) have created an Interuniversity Consortium for University Management which currently promotes three collaboration projects. The first one, called African-Spanish Higher Education Management Platform, promotes the reflection and exchange of experiences regarding research management. The second project centers on the creation of computer applications to facilitate research management and the visualization of research done by African universities. The third project fosters innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa through the development of an online-platform called Technipedia. Besides the cooperation program with Africa, ACUP is working to develop a joint action program between the Catalan universities and higher education institutions in Haiti.

Universities as institutions which promote a responsible society

The UDC Plan conceives university development cooperation not only regarding collaboration with universities in partner countries, but also as a strategic element of social responsibility of the Catalan universities. The Plan recognizes the responsibility that falls upon higher education institutions with regard their contribution to the provision of training for a responsible society.

Additionally to the training of professionals in the skills which relate to their degrees, universities need to be prepared to provide training for a society which is socially committed to redressing inequalities between North and South, and which understands the relationship between daily local actions and their impact on a global reality. The citizens need to have the capacity to reflect and act critically and conscientiously, contributing to a sustainable global human development. Furthermore they need to know how to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens of an interdependent world, contributing to make it fairer and more sustainable. The UDC Plan stresses the necessity to contribute to a decisive commitment by universities to create a global society which is respectful with human rights and committed to sustainable development. For that reason, it promotes the mainstreaming and standardization of UDC as well as its consolidation among the institutional priorities.

Promoting adequate policies and instruments for UDC in Spain and Catalonia

With a general reflection on the importance of higher education for development as well as the concrete proposals of action, the UDC Plan wishes to contribute to the development of adequate policies and instruments for university development cooperation in Spain and Catalonia. These days, despite the fact that universities are beginning to be recognized as development cooperation agents and that in the new Master Plan for Spanish Cooperation, research, innovation and development studies represent some of the goals of cooperation, there is a lack of suitable instruments or stable adequate funding in order to be able to carry out this cooperation policy jointly with the universities. In order to promote the full incorporation of higher education in the policies of development cooperation, as well as to develop tools and instruments which are adapted to promote UDC activities, the UDC Plan proposes to set up spaces for dialogue between the universities and public administration. The goal is to assist governments in the definition of a public policy on development cooperation that recognizes the role played by higher education in development, consolidating those aspects which are linked to higher education and research as a priority element of the policy. This recognition also needs to be accompanied by the definition of specific instruments which allow the deployment of a high-quality UDC. Similarly, these spaces need to act as channels to reinforce the dialogue with all the public bodies involved, that is not only with the department responsible for development cooperation, but also with those departments which have competences in the field of higher education, research and innovation. The aim of this is to move towards a higher level of consistency with regard policies on development. Last but not least, in order to guarantee all of the above, the UDC Plan fosters the reinforcement of the weight and capacity for influence of universities in the spaces set up for decision-making and coordination.

About the author

Josep M. Vilalta Verdú is the Executive Secretary of the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP). He has acted as Deputy Director General of Research for the Generalitat de Catalunya, Head of the Area of University Evaluation, Studies and Cooperation of the Generalitat. Coordinator of the UNESCO Chair for Higher Education Teaching and Administration, Head of the Strategic Planning Unit of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), Executive Secretary of the International Coastal Resources Research Centre and Deputy Managing Director of the Maritime Engineering Laboratory at the UPC.

Nadja Gmelch is Project Manager at the Catalan Association for Public Universities (ACUP). She has thorough experience in the popularization of science as well as international relations and cooperation for development activities. She is actually working on several development cooperation projects in Africa and Haití, mainly focused on strengthening higher education institutions.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government