Britain and Unesco need each other

June 13, 1997

IT WAS no coincidence that the visit by Unesco director general Federico Mayor to London should have taken place just one month after the general election. New Labour implies new directions. It embraces reform in public life and a sense, not only of political, but of social and moral probity. These qualities are not strange to Mr Mayor, who has devoted himself to the reform and restabilisation of an organisation founded for the educational, cultural and scientific development of the world's peoples.

Mr Mayor, a former rector of the University of Granada, knows about university education. He comprehends its problems, not only in the context of financial imperatives, but in the evolution of definitions concerning the university itself and its functions in society.

For Mr Mayor, the university of the people is radical in pushing forward the ideals of social equality and the frontiers of civilisation. In The New Page, he warns: "Traditional education carries with it the risk of transforming open and aware young students into narrow-minded citizens, out of touch with society and the important issues of their times." He wants a rethink of the educational process in the context of education for all. Such democratisation should fit well with the aspirations of new Labour. It is no surprise that the new government has announced Britain's resumed membership of Unesco.

The decision, however, is not before time. Under the last government, a climate was created whereby academic and entrepreneurial competition between universities flourished. The academic autonomy of the university was rightly re-affirmed. There were, however, disadvantages. Self-interest became the dominant force. A wider global educational mission was viewed by some universities, not in terms of humanitarianism, but of market profit, to compensate for financial shortfalls in educational provision at home. I hope this will change under Labour.

Over the past few years, a number of academic pressure groups have lobbied for Britain to rejoin Unesco. The reasons why the US and UK withdrew membership have been well-rehearsed. Mr Mayor's reforms have been well-demonstrated and the benefits of resumed entry well-documented. Perhaps in all this something has been missed to which the new government may also respond. The culture of the previous government made it necessary to argue the financial case for resumed entry. That argument may still stand, but there is a corollary. It is not just that the UK needs Unesco, but that Unesco needs the UK to stimulate its educational mission for the developing world.

Rejoining Unesco, however, is not about the calculation and payment of a charitable subscription. It calls for participation in a world educational agenda. Mr Mayor's aim for universities is that they should be distinctive and forthright. They should also be collaborative. The objectives of Unesco are relevant not just to an individual institution or country, but fundamental to the advancement of global civilisation. The director general writes: "The university must never be docile. We must be the institution that provides the decision-makers with scientific elements and ask the questions that perhaps upset those around us, but must ask nonetheless." The same may be so of Unesco itself. The organisation may at times need to challenge the governments that fund it, if that proves necessary to fulfil the rationale for its existence. A significant test is the measure by which governments constructively respond to such challenges.

Britain's re-entry sends a message to the world that the UK has gone through its period of introspection and localised self-interest. Over the coming years it might be hoped that Labour's approach in government to higher education will include the broader humanitarian agenda which membership of Unesco will help bring about.

Michael Scott is pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University. He writes in a personal capacity.

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