Ana Lucia Gazzola

Ana Lucia Gazzola

Ana Lucia Gazzola was Executive Director of UNESCO-IESALC and head of the regional conference on higher education until 2008. She was also the Executive Director of the Institute INHOTIM. She has been Rector of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. She has been president of the Association of Rectors of Universities and Federal Institutions from Brazil, and Deputy Member of the Council for Economic and Social Development of the Presidency of Brazil.

In this interview, Ana Lúcia Gazzola, the former executive director of both INHOTIM and IESALC, reflects on the role of higher education in creating knowledge and eradicating economic and social inequalities. INHOTIM and IESALC (Instituto Internacional de la Unesco para la Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe), reflects on the role of higher education in creating knowledge and eradicating economic and social inequalities.    

“Higher education plays a very important role in transforming information into knowledge.”  

What role should knowledge creation and dissemination play in society?

We live in the knowledge society—in fact, the term is now used in the plural: knowledge societies. We are immersed not in knowledge but in information, because knowledge is information that has been filtered, analysed, criticised and processed. So we live in a world of information, and higher education plays a very important role in transforming information into knowledge. It’s true that universities no longer play a hegemonic role in producing knowledge. Information and knowledge are, potentially, everywhere: on the Internet, in other social organisations, in other places. Still, universities are perhaps the only place in society where knowledge is compared, where a dialogue of knowledge takes place, where knowledge is criticised, and where information is clearly transformed into knowledge.

This social role played by universities is extremely important, and we must work with all stakeholders in society to shorten the distance between the production of knowledge and its adoption by the wider public. I believe that there is a very important role to be played by universities, including public universities and, in particular, university networks: the creation of instruments, the construction of bridges to make the knowledge produced inside and outside of universities accessible and transferable in order to generate social transformation, as well as innovation in products, services, social and technological processes, and, logically, to enable knowledge to serve as a vector of social transformation, boost development, create jobs, generate wealth and be distributed fairly among all citizens.

Universities also play a role in the individual dimension—that is, in the action of knowing—as well as in the social or national dimension: they embody the knowledge, the access to symbolic goods and the access to knowledge that come with full citizenship and individual planning. At the same time, knowledge today is the chief currency of development. It is through access to knowledge that countries and nations are able to build their future, participate in a productively competitive manner, develop themselves and become modern. This is a role that must be played by universities together with other institutions. Perhaps the fundamental role of universities is to organise, coordinate and lead this process.

How can higher education help to eradicate economic and social inequalities?

When we think about our region, Latin America and the Caribbean, or about Africa and certain parts of Asia and Europe, or when we think about the internal inequalities that exist within every country, we realise that the history of humankind is, in some ways, a bit melancholy.
Together we have already built a utopia of knowledge, as if the advances in knowledge made in recent years had served to bring about social development that is sustainable, equal and equitable for all nations and all citizens. Regrettably, this has not been the case. Instead, we have seen a concentration of power that is, in part, a result of the unequal adoption of knowledge. This is a terrible thought. Just as human beings can die of starvation for lack of physical food, they can also die of symbolic starvation if they do not have access to the use of reason, to the production of symbolic goods, to all that which can be done to make human life more constructive and positive—that is, all the cultural values represented by our interventions, that which we add to nature. But not everyone has access to all this. So we’re really looking at a situation of inequality, both material and symbolic.

Thus, universities, higher education and institutions of higher education have some very important roles to play—and I use the plural very consciously:

First, the role of universities is to spread knowledge equitably throughout society.

Second, the role of universities is to act as a factor of local, national and regional involvement, in order to make involvement on a worldwide scale possible. This involvement should address the most important issues of our times, such as our relationship with the environment, access to culture, democratic values and social justice, but also the right to knowledge and the right to develop instruments that will allow us to overcome these persistent inequalities. When I talk about these inequalities, I am not just referring to money or access to culture. I also include the inequalities that afflict minorities, people who are denied freedom, poor people, migrants, refugees, and people with disabilities of different sorts.

We must address and overcome a whole range of inequalities in order to achieve the full human and social rights that, in addition to being fundamental to all of us, form the basis of a new society and a culture of peace and solidarity.

Another important role of universities is education in values. This is an issue of great concern to GUNI. What is the true social responsibility of universities? Clearly they must transfer knowledge; clearly they must spread the capacity for innovation to companies—that is, to the productive sector. But universities must also educate in values. They must train not mere professionals, but professionals who are citizens: citizens of their land, of their village, of their country, and also of a world community. As such, these citizens must share certain ethical principles that form the basis for worldwide relationships that are productive, grounded in solidarity, and satisfying for everyone. Universities must play important roles in economics, very important roles in ensuring the sustainability of life on this planet, and extremely important roles in the field of ethics, citizenship and values.

How can we ensure that higher education in science and technology will translate into development?

There are issues of political positioning, of the agenda that countries need to develop, of the operational measures that are being put in place, and of what needs to be done in a more coordinated fashion. Universities by themselves will not bring about scientific and technological development. The university is an important actor but it requires two other actors: government—that is, public policies that will facilitate transfer from universities to productive sectors—and the productive sector itself—that is, business owners must also have an agenda that incorporates knowledge as an added value in the processes of producing products, services and so on. Broadly speaking, these are the three main actors of society. We must develop an agenda that requires that the various actors take political positions and call for laws and regulations that can enable transfer between these three actors. There are roles for government, for universities and for civil society. These three actors need to be coordinated in national plans for science and technology that are envisioned as major national agendas capable of influencing regional organisation.

I believe that, today, scientific and technological development cannot take place in isolation. Intellectual and scientific output, as well as its implications and technological developments, must take the form of more collective agendas. For this reason, I am a strong supporter of regional integration, and in particular of regional agendas for advantageous competition—in the healthiest sense of the term—on the world stage, as has been done by the European Union and Mercosur, and which is being attempted in other regions.

But there is also the issue of the instruments that should be created at universities. At our regional conference in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2008, we featured a sample of institutional processes of transfer aimed at innovation. We made a public call for participation in the 36 UNESCO member states in our region, Latin America and the Caribbean. Universities, research institutions and governments presented projects that showcased the consolidation of innovative ways of transferring knowledge. These projects built bridges between the institution producing the knowledge—that is, a university or research centre—to the institution that would be responsible for the innovation—that is, the productive sector. More than 60 projects from 16 countries were approved. This allowed us to observe that we are much more advanced than we thought, but that processes of this sort are still very rare, being found in just a few institutions in a few different countries.

It was a very interesting agenda, because it allowed us to share and spread well-developed processes and good practices, which was our objective. I believe that we cannot talk about a transformational agenda for higher education without incorporating this fundamental aspect of higher education as the institutional framework for the production of knowledge, for research, for the transfer of research results and, therefore, for the generation of innovation throughout society. And when I refer to innovation, I am talking about everything from hard technologies to social technologies, assessment technologies and public governance systems.

I believe that the big question, nowadays, for university-level higher education, for research and for networks is whether we will be able to move beyond our individual agendas or individual institutions and develop a collective agenda that will allow us to organise an infrastructure of human skills, because this resource is finite in terms of people, money, infrastructure and investment, which are needed to bring about fully developed research. We must always be on the cutting edge of the technologies of the future, but we also have to be involved in social technologies. It does no good to make scientific advances if we are not also making social advances, and good social technologies are very important for improving the organisation of society and of production systems in general.

There is strength in union. If two people join together, they can make something that neither one could have made alone, or which either person would have taken so long to make that, by the time it was completed, the agenda would have changed and the historical opportunity would have been lost.

This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat. It is not a literal transcription of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.


  • 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