The accelerating pace of technological progress is ostensibly shrinking our planet and connecting us in ways that were difficult to imagine just a few decades ago.
Less than 20 years after the introduction of the first BlackBerry, we now take for granted our ability to carry in our pocket a single device that not only enables us to communicate by text, voice or video with practically anyone, anywhere, at any time, but also empowers us to engage with global networks through social media, while providing us with virtually unlimited access to the exponentially expanding universe of news, information and multimedia content.
And yet, while our world is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent, a countervailing political upheaval is manifesting itself – one that seems determined to create barriers between people and nations alike. The UK’s Brexit vote and the US administration’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement offer examples of a wider global trend.
This phenomenon should be a wake-up call for all institutions of higher learning, urging us to reconsider what more we can do, and do differently, for the betterment of humanity.
For centuries, universities have existed to create, disseminate and apply knowledge through the teaching and research activities of their faculty and students. In pursuit of this mission, academia has been effective in educating the citizenry, contributing to the progressive evolution of society and improving the human condition. Historically, research universities have been particularly instrumental in performing these noble duties and solving many of the world’s problems, including the eradication of many erstwhile incurable diseases.
But in these times of frenetic change, the overwhelming pace of disruption surpasses most institutions’ capacity to adapt to meet the scale of the modern challenges we face. Meanwhile, human activity continues to complicate a growing list of calamities that threaten us on a global scale – climate change, environmental degradation, health epidemics, weapons of mass destruction, war, famine and a plethora of other socio-political ills caused or exacerbated by the widening economic disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots”.
Such immensely complex challenges cannot be solved by single disciplines or single institutions. Even conventional bilateral models of institutional partnerships tend to lack the scale required to make a dent in problems of such immensity.
Unfortunate political developments around the world, which are leading nation states away from globalisation, are making matters worse. Governments are being elected with mandates to protect national interests at all costs and to the exclusion of broader international concerns.
In this political climate (which one can only hope will be temporary in nature) universities must double down on the essential collaborative roles they play in building bridges among the peoples of the world through the creation, dissemination and application of knowledge, and through the promotion of talent mobility on a global scale. The times demand that we more actively pursue multilateral frameworks and international supporting networks to muster our collective intellectual and physical resources to address the problems that threaten all humanity, regardless of the borders within which they happen to reside.
Indeed, we should see our individual institutions as parts of a dynamic global system whose mission is to create more pathways for sharing ideas, for student and faculty exchanges, for teaching and research collaborations, and for the development of cross-cultural competences – all with the aim of deriving benefits from the full range of knowledge and expertise that comes from our richly diverse global community.
Amit Chakma is the president and vice-chancellor of Western University, Canada. He will be speaking on “Breaking boundaries: research universities in the 21st century” at the 2018 THE Asia Universities Summit in Shenzhen, China, in February. Book your place now.