We must build bridges - our future depends on it

July 16, 2004

Universities are in a prime position to develop relationships between disparate cultures, writes Hans van Ginkel

Connectivity, change and convergence are generic features of the world in which we live and ones that we will, for better or for worse, pass on to our children. It is also a world of much haste as the speed of change gathers pace and the volume of what is exchanged - goods, ideas, capital and, last but not least, capital in human form - increases.

There are many ways of describing this phenomenon: the rise of a borderless economy, the end of history or the challenge of globalisation.

Can this emerging world order flourish if the gap between rich and poor within individual countries and between North and South persists or grows even larger?

The issue of cultural identity is no less challenging. If the benefits of globalisation accrue to the North, the reserves of human talent, still largely untapped, lie in the South and in Asia. The quickening pulse of population movements and consequent cultural mobility make this an equally urgent issue. Sustainability, economically defined, rests on understanding and coming to grips with cultural diversity in a world in which identities and thus the ensuing diversity are rapidly changing. Over the centuries, universities have developed scholarly exchange and ties with their fellows abroad. Today, international outreach has become a major driving force in institutional development. What has changed, however, is its intensification and also the speed of its development - in part as natural consequences of the revolution in mass communications and in travel.

Such intensification has two faces: more universities than ever before are engaged in exchanging students and staff. The ties they are forging range from alliances building on each institution's strengths to trans-regional delivery of consortia, coming together around curriculum design, capacity building and multi-institutional cross-regional research projects. Yet, there have also been times when links between universities, scholars and nations were abruptly broken or simply allowed to disintegrate.

The Second World War was one such period. In its aftermath, the International Association of Universities - after a first, ground-breaking orientation meeting in Utrecht - was officially created under Unesco auspices at Nice in 1950. Its mission was very precisely to reunite the scholarly community on a worldwide basis. This it did, despite the Cold War. Indeed, it has never been part of IAU policy to keep universities out because of ideological differences. Rather, its aim has been to make universities of the world stronger by enhancing their cooperation and internationalisation.

The drive towards global civilisation demands that the diversity of the world's cultures is not to be feared. Rather, it is to be celebrated.

Diversity in all its forms enriches and contributes to human development.

Since its foundation, one of the association's abiding commitments, along with the defence of academic freedom, has been to give full rein to that diversity by opening up dialogue between civilisations.

This has been a task of particular urgency from the late 1950s onwards as the university began its march to the South and when new nations assumed independence. It is even more pressing today. For the IAU, the world's universities are the best means to advance a full appreciation of cultural diversity, a full understanding of other people coming from very different backgrounds - geographical, social, economic, political and cultural. The quickening pace of globalisation has given a new urgency both to dialogue between civilisations and to sustainable development. The IAU has placed these issues - critical as they are to the future of humankind - at the centre of its agenda.

It is not universities alone that are becoming more closely interlinked.

Their students will live in an intensely interconnected world. Their jobs will bring them into daily contact with people with different backgrounds from different cultures. Cultural understanding, however, is not only a requirement for those who go abroad. It is as much a challenge on the campus itself.

As student cross-frontier or cross-continental traffic intensifies, there is a tendency for incoming students to set themselves apart from the host culture or the other way around. Cross-cultural dialogue does not start when dealing with institutions abroad. It needs to be reciprocal. And the first step, which is always the most difficult, begins at home.

Hans van Ginkel is president of the International Association of Universities and former rector of the University of Utrecht.

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