Transform teaching and access to tackle crises, universities told

Universities face ‘reckoning’ on societal relevance akin to last major transformation after Second World War, says Harvard professor on Unesco commission

November 11, 2021
Person with placard with Greta Thunberg’s blah blah blah quote
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Universities must respond to crises in democracy, social fragmentation and climate change by rethinking their missions to innovate in teaching and push further on open access in research, ensuring they are not seen as “elite institutions that exist to serve elites”, a landmark report says.

The report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education, made up of politicians and academics and chaired by Ethiopia’s president, Sahle-Work Zewde, was published on 10 November by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and is only the third such intervention of its kind in Unesco’s 75-year history.

The two-year project was a response to “growing social fragmentation, democratic backsliding, the crisis of climate change, and growing exclusion”, said Fernando Reimers, a member of the Unesco commission and Ford Foundation professor of the practice of international education at Harvard University.

For each of the report’s five broad calls to “transform pedagogies, transform curricula, redesign teaching professions, safeguard and transform schools, and create a learning eco-system” universities were seen as “the leaders of that change”, he added.

“In recent decades, certainly in places like the UK and the US, the public and politicians are increasingly asking, ‘What good do universities do for society? Who do universities serve?’ I think that is causing a reckoning within the higher education community perhaps of comparable significance to the reckoning that led to the last major transformation of the university [in widening access] after the Second World War.”

On open access, the report says that while many universities support the “publicness” of education, universities are “also places where many enclosures are produced, especially in recent decades, through cost barriers and intellectual property claims”.

“If the university is going to address the challenges of democracy, of inclusion, of participation, it has to empower a very broad range of people with access to knowledge, not only those traditionally defined as members of a university community,” said Professor Reimers.

And open access is crucial in relation to climate change, he continued, where “there is a tremendous disconnect between the knowledge accessible to climate scientists and the knowledge about climate change accessible by the public – which explains the fact we are making so little progress in reaching the goal of limiting the increase in the rise in temperatures to 1.5C”.

Highlighting educational polarisation as a factor in political divisions, he said that for many non-graduates “universities are basically elite institutions that exist to serve elites. The only way we are going to address that is if universities recognise that those [non-graduate] groups are also an important constituency that needs to be served. Open access is one way to do that.”

On teaching, the report says that while “education is part of the central mission of a university”, in “many places it has been neglected in recent decades as a result of the ways that higher education is organised, accredited, and financed”, with academics sometimes being assessed solely on their “productivity” in research rather than “the quality, relevance, and value of the contributions they make to teaching, mentoring, capacity building, and fostering collaborative relationships with the communities they aim to benefit”.

One key argument of the report is that “universities have to get outside their walls and engage with the rest of the educational ecosystem, connecting themselves a lot more intentionally with elementary and secondary schools”, said Professor Reimers.

A recent book co-authored by Professor Reimers, University and School Collaborations During a Pandemic, highlighted how the University of Guadalajara in Mexico “jointly developed curricula that enabled teaching online, built the capacity of teachers to teach online, [and] generated knowledge to guide the decisions made by education authorities”, he said.

Meanwhile, on lifelong learning, most universities remain too focused on teaching students at a “relatively early stage of their careers”, when a focus is needed on “short courses, job-embedded courses, partnerships between universities and workplaces”, he argued.

The report aims to stimulate conversation on how to make universities “the place of the pedagogical experimentation [and] innovation”, so they “walk the talk about what education for the future should be” and point the way for schools, said Professor Reimers.


Print headline: Be ‘leaders of change’, Unesco urges universities

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Reader's comments (3)

Unis mustn't give the impression of being Ivory Towers that are indifferent (or even hostile!) to the general public. For one thing, the general public provide much of universities' money.
Unis mustn't give the impression of being Ivory Towers that are indifferent (or even hostile!) to the general public. For one thing, the general public provide much of universities' money.
Unis mustn't give the impression of being Ivory Towers that are indifferent (or even hostile!) to the general public. For one thing, the general public provide much of universities' money.