Academics draft ‘new social contract for higher education’

International group aims to re-establish core principles of universities

October 13, 2016
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An international group of academics has drafted a “new social contract for higher education” that aims to identify the purpose of universities given their evolving relationships with governments, private organisations and society.

The contract, named “The Copenhagen Declaration”, establishes six principles underlying universities’ missions: public good, social responsibility, academic freedom, educational autonomy, university independence and humane workplace.

The manifesto was drafted by scholars who attended the Universities in the Knowledge Economy’s University Futures conference at Aarhus University in June.

Susan Wright, professor of educational anthropology at Aarhus and one of eight members of the declaration’s editorial committee, said that universities used to be a “fairly ring-fenced sector”, protected from “economic and political interests”. Now, however, they find themselves “having to negotiate” a new environment of industrial, financial, governmental and civic interests.

She said that the declaration is designed to “bring up to the surface” principles that universities would endorse “but are maybe getting lost in the tumult of trying to survive in the current environment”.

“There is such a pressure on universities to make ends meet that maybe the public good of universities gets a little bit forgotten,” she said.

She added that most of the academics behind the project are from Europe, North America and Australia, and that she would welcome input on the content of the contract from scholars in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Chris Newfield, professor of literature and American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is also a member of the committee, said that he would like scholars to comment on whether they think the declaration is “plausibly expressed”, “too cryptic”, “too leading” or “too culturally specific”.

The final aim of the project is still being discussed, but Professor Newfield said that he would like universities and academics to sign up to the declaration once it is finalised by the end of the year.

He compared the “educational crisis”, which he said included policymakers viewing universities as “job training centres”, to the “climate crisis” in that “we’re doing things to make it worse rather than better”.

The declaration aims to “start a discussion about the non-market and public benefits” of universities that “everyone on some level knows is important but that we don’t have policy discourse to address”, he added.

“It’s fundamental to the maintenance of advanced societies to have broadly democratic higher education and broadly distributed cognitive skills,” he said. "I don’t see any other institution on the planet that can really do that. Businesses can’t do it. Governments can’t do it. That’s why we have universities.”

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