Traditionally, universities focused on teaching and research. Now they are being urged to become better neighbours and citizens by engaging with the local community. Brenda Gourley explains
Universities stand on three fundamental pillars: research, teaching and service to the community. However, the vast majority of academic institutions lean far more heavily on the first two pillars than on the last.
In an attempt to redress the balance, the Association of Commonwealth Universities has initiated a programme of research, consultation and debate over the past six years to encourage university leaders, civic heads and policymakers to reposition community engagement as a core value for universities in the 21st century.
Engagement, they argue, implies "strenuous, thoughtful, argumentative interaction with the non-university world" in every sphere of university endeavour, and this includes "taking on wider responsibilities as neighbours and citizens" ( Engagement as a Core Value for the University : www.acu.ac.uk/engagement ).
It was appropriate, therefore, that the ACU was one of the sponsors of a meeting in Talloires, France, in September 2005, where the heads of 28 universities from 22 countries gathered to renew their commitment to civic and social responsibilities. We signed the Talloires Declaration (which can be viewed at www.omidyar.net/group/tnet/ ) and have invited all those interested to support and collaborate with us to achieve the goals outlined in the document.
The declaration emphasises universities' "unique obligation to listen, understand and contribute to social transformation and development". Such an obligation should, quite rightly, find expression in teaching and research, the first two pillars of higher education. It should also find expression in the third - how universities form a community and represent the diversity that society displays, as well as how they govern themselves.
Institutions demonstrate their values most powerfully by their actions rather than their words. As Svava Bjarnason, head of policy research at the ACU, has succinctly expressed, we need to transform the rhetoric into reality. We have had occasion over the past 15 months to witness the extraordinary efforts of people rallying to the aid of victims of natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami, the earthquake in South Asia and the flooding in New Orleans. We have seen universities help to look after the students of those affected by the disasters and provide access to learning and educational materials while their colleagues recover and rebuild their communities.
These are marvellous examples that renew our faith in human nature. But is it enough to act on this sense of civic responsibility only during major disasters and to let our commitment to society hibernate the rest of the time? We need to make civic engagement the norm, not the exception. And we especially need it at this time in the life of our planet, when the disparities between rich and poor are ever greater and the means for us to be informed and respond ever more available.
In Talloires we shared examples of how our individual universities interact with local communities. But we also pondered how we could use the web to combine our efforts to tackle issues that concern us all and to which we could all make a contribution.
To the students on campuses around the world, we can now add those who constitute a virtual community - students studying through distance-education institutions and through the e-learning opportunities offered by many of our members. Those of us who offer these opportunities see our students in daily contact with one another, enjoying seminars, chatrooms, support groups, clubs, societies, blogs and more. Many of them are working adults who have returned to university to renew their knowledge and skills, and many have family and caring responsibilities. All have much to contribute.
Imagine the possibilities for action if we combined all these communities, wherever they may be, and added a focus on a particular issue to our ongoing civic engagement efforts - illiteracy perhaps, especially as conquering it is one of the UN's Millennium Development Goals. "Literacy as freedom" is also the theme for the UN's Literacy Decade - Education for All (2003-12).
The issue is undeniably critical: according to Unesco statistics, one in five people in the world over the age of 15 can neither read nor write.
Worldwide there are more than 100 million university students and about several million staff, a figure expected to double by 2025. Add to that our alumni, and the impact we could have if we joined forces would be phenomenal.
I invite readers to join hands in this endeavour, wherever you may be. Log on to the network ( www.acu.ac.uk ), add your voice to the discussion and tell us what contributions you would like us all to make - and engage in the effort that follows.
Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of the Open University.
High returns - 'The scholarship gave me an excellent start to my academic career'
Michael Cullen spent three years in the late 1980s at the University of Edinburgh, where he took his doctorate in history.
Since 2002, he has combined the roles of Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand and Minister of Finance.
Before entering political life in 1981, he lectured in history at the University of Otago.
"The Commonwealth scholarship was very important in terms of my career and personal development. It gave me the opportunity to get an excellent start to my academic career in particular.
"New Zealand has gained significantly from Kiwis gaining postgraduate education offshore. In my case, the area of study has been important in terms of the kinds of issues a minister of finance has to deal with."
Dr Cullen is convinced of the value of the scholarship plan. "The Commonwealth scholarships plan provides a basis for the multilateral exchange of scholarships and ideas across countries of widely differing characteristics. For New Zealand, a geographically isolated country in the southwest Pacific, it brings us into close contact with countries with which we otherwise have limited dealings."