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Universities to play an active role in laying the foundation for a sustainable society

30 April 2020

Yves Flückiger, Rector of the University of Geneva and President of swissuniversities


We are currently living in an unprecedented period. The COVID-19 crisis we are going through has triggered numerous inspiring initiatives:

· Remarkable surges of solidarity are emerging, notably among the student community;

· Good practices in managing such an extraordinary crisis are being shared widely, notably among university networks such as the Coimbra Group;

· Governments are turning to their academic communities and involving scientific experts in their national task forces to provide them with their expertise in the most efficient way possible;

· In their decision-making processes, authorities are considering recommendations made by academics from a large range of fields including not only medicine and science but also behavioral sciences, ethics and others.

But the crisis also sheds a harsh light on the growing social gap prevailing in societies around the world. In dealing with the containment imposed by the pandemic, populations face great inequalities in regard to the conditions they live in. Moreover, all are not equal against the virus that causes many more victims among underprivileged populations who suffer from obesity and other diseases that are more prevalent among specific population groups.

As with the financial crisis in 2008, the Coronavirus pandemic reminds us that in a globalized world a crisis in one part may rapidly be felt elsewhere. As a reaction, protectionist and populist views gain ground and multilateralism is ever more fundamentally questioned. COVID-19 is indeed putting institutions such as the World Health Organization or the European Union through a particularly rough time.

In this polarized landscape and against the rapidly growing social gap, Universities have a key role to play. As highlighted in the Conclusion of the 2020 Glion Colloquium – an independent think-tank committed to the future and responsibilities of research universities, “Universities are among the institutions that are able to transcend national boundaries and interests, and are, by their very nature, multilateralist. Without making concessions to excellence and independence, universities could take leadership by forming consortia, collaborating with other universities, industry and other parties, like cities and regions. Working together, they could formulate universal goals in line with the United Nations Development Goals, and, by collaborating with industries, cities and regions, they can translate this collaboration into regional impact.” The conclusions stress how universities stand “at the crossroads to a sustainable future” and how they should play an active role in laying the foundation for a sustainable society. To this end, the participants in the Colloquium mention several goals universities should pursue, among which “Contributing to bridging the social divide”, “Strengthening international university networks” and “Implementing a decision-making support system”. *

Universities should definitely strive to become more inclusive. As mentioned in the Colloquium, mass education has contributed to the worldwide rise of a middle class that has increasingly diverged from a lower class that feels left behind. Universities must reach out to all parts of society, through lifelong learning but also by sharing their knowledge with the population at large and allowing access to higher education to certain sectors of the population that are too often excluded.

As for University networks, they have always been key to conducting cutting-edge research. Scientific Europe preceded the creation of political Europe, which in turn strengthened European science, in particular through the creation of the European research and innovation framework programs. Switzerland has always been part of the European scientific community as illustrated by its role in projects such as CERN or ESA. We should be very careful not to weaken scientific Europe for political reasons, mostly driven by populism, nationalism and a general tendency to self-centeredness. The European continent and its countries face the challenge of remaining competitive with China and the US as well as of addressing efficiently the major and complex issues our societies are encountering in fields such as health, climate, and artificial intelligence. European projects guarantee both the size and quality necessary to meet these challenges.

Finally, bringing together global academic networks with actors from governmental and intergovernmental organizations as well as from NGOs, industry, and philanthropy will allow us to be powerful enough to tackle efficiently complex global issues and have the necessary impact to ensure a sustainable world.



* https://glion.org/the-university-at-the-crossroads-to-a-sustainable-future-2/