“What made the deepest impression on me at Lund University, and touched my heart, is the democratic idea that everyone should be an active participant.These are the words of the outgoing chair of the students’ union, Simon Wetterling, when he spoke as the only student at the symposium of the U21 network’s annual meeting last week in Lund. ”
Just over 20 universities from all over the world are part of the global U21 network, which at 15 years of age is the oldest of its kind. Simon Wetterling got strong support for his ambition to reanimate the student network first launched in U21’s infancy, when it was not as easy to keep in touch via internet, for example.
Networks and learning are the way forward, according to the consensus at the symposium on the theme of “The Role of Universities in Today´s Learning Society”.
Universities have the huge task of contributing to the solution of problems such as feeding a rapidly growing global population and heading off the climate threat. But at the same time, the expectations placed on universities are not realistic, according to many participants.
In the wake of the financial crisis, governments have turned to universities as saviours in an emergency, and the universities have not always had the sense to draw the line at what can be achieved without compromising integrity and academic identity.
“We often promise more than we can deliver. We must put a stop to overselling and underdelivering . Instead, we should undersell and overdeliver”, said Professor Stephen J. Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia, UBC.
What emerged was that it should be clear that universities can contribute but cannot solve problems on their own; no single agent can do that, the solution has to be found in cooperation.
The universities’ most important contribution is to educate students and teach them to think critically, according to student Simon Wetterling. The students are the future and it is through education and research that universities take responsibility.
Allan Goodman, the ground-breaking American university manager who has worked a lot for internationalisation, received the first Gilbert medal – the medal itself was designed by students in Lund.
Goodman is the head of the non-profit Institute of International Education. His perspective was similar to that of Simon Wetterling:
”The U21 network is made up of world-class universities. Your higher education institutions are currently training students who will have leading roles as politicians and business leaders and who will affect society and the choices we make for a long time to come”.
Goodman also pointed out the role and responsibilities of university management. History shows they are the ones who manage to raise their sights and pursue issues of internationalisation and increased exchange with other countries.
“That which is so important for the future, for peace,” said Goodman.
But universities cannot only look to the future and think globally. They must also make a difference and act locally, here and now” said Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University of Singapore. Not least for universities to retain the trust that they enjoy.
In Mexico, which is struggling with major class divisions and corruption, universities have become a strong positive force for change, explained Dr Enrique Zepeda, responsible for internationalisation at the Tecnológico university in Monterrey.
Students supervised by their lecturers are part of far-reaching supporting networks with many tasks in the local community – everything from helping children get a basic primary education and adults to start businesses and get further in life. Monterrey also works a lot with distance education over the internet.
Vice-Chancellor Per Eriksson gave examples from Lund University. Researchers in social work have managed to get several Swedish municipalities to test a new, research-based model for reducing homelessness - a model which has paid off and which more municipalities are now interested in testing.
Universities must not become too introspective – it is incredibly important to engage with society, added Professor Katsuichi Uchida from Waseda University in Japan. He testified to the commitment and voluntary work that the powerful earthquake and tsunami generated among lecturers and students.
This involved both local and national efforts, but also international work as Waseda shared its experiences with other countries.
More of this type of internationalisation with ethical overtones is needed, agreed Professor Hans de Wit, from the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. There has been too much quantitative and marketing thinking in the internationalisation work of universities.
“Instead of boasting about how many international fee-paying students we have, we must focus on what our students are learning, what skills they possess when they graduate”, said Hans de Wit.
Merle Jacob, Professor of research policy at Lund University, thought that universities have always been embedded in society and expected to do some good.
“But their task has changed. Previously, it was limited to delivering education and research findings. Now it also means equipping people to manage the uncertain future and face the major societal problems that need to be resolved”.
The university in Monterrey, Mexico is a precursor with regard to this type of empowerment of citizens, said Merle Jacob. And the universities in the U21 network have a unique opportunity to learn more from Monterrey and other members about how to work locally on global challenges.
Text: BRITTA COLLBERG