The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization-backed ‘Futures of Education’ initiative has called for the democratisation of knowledge and a clear commitment by higher education and knowledge producing institutions to an agenda that primarily values equality and sustainability.
In its first report, Humanistic Futures of Learning: Perspectives from UNESCO chairs and UNITWIN networks, the international commission spearheading the Futures of Education agenda stated that there is a need for reforms in higher education in order to respond to a complex, diversified and technology-intensive future.
Launched in 1992, the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme promotes international inter-university cooperation and networking to enhance institutional capacities through knowledge sharing and collaborative work. Comprising over 800 institutions and affiliates, the global network is an essential resource for the generation and mobilisation of interdisciplinary knowledge.
The report, launched on 28 January in Paris, is ostensibly an urgent call for global communities to re-imagine how knowledge and learning systems can contribute to the public common good. It represents the first curated input submitted to the International Commission on the Futures of Education, chaired by Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde.
“The new thinking will require a strong commitment by institutions to an agenda that primarily values social equality and economic progress for all,” said Marisa Alvarez in a report chapter. Alvarez is a lecturer in political science and education studies at the National University of Tres de Febrero, the Argentine university that is home to the UNESCO chair on education and future in Latin America.
Commercialisation of universities
The report faults the current 21st century university for being highly commercialised, a tendency that has encouraged privatisation and marketability of higher education. “In practical terms, this means that in most circumstances educational goods are only available to those who have resources to buy them,” said Alvarez and her associates that include Norberto Fernández Lamarra, Pablo García and Cristian Perez Centeno.
According to Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for education, the main objective of the Futures of Education initiative is to advocate for a humanistic approach to education and development.
Towards this goal, the learning system will be grounded on a five-point agenda comprising culture and environment; rethinking learning systems; knowledge and transformation; science, technology and innovation as well as responsible citizenship.
“We envisage a vision that acknowledges the diversity of knowledge systems, worldviews and conceptions of well-being, while still reaffirming the universal shared values,” said Giannini.
Traditional knowledge systems
Lewis Ngesu, an associate professor of sociology of education at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, said the debate about the new direction of education is timely as new approaches to learning would expand knowledge diversity and correct existing inequities.
“For instance, here in East Africa, we would like to see universities drawing on traditional knowledge systems that were neglected and discarded during colonial days,” said Ngesu.
He argued that such diversity should be extended beyond learning in tertiary institutions to the extent that most African languages and indigenous knowledge should be used to grow content on the internet.
“Just like colonialism has continued to impact on higher education in most countries in Africa, digital knowledge inequalities are likely to create negative structural foundations among societies that may not make sufficient progress in the fourth industrial revolution,” said Ngesu.
The concern is real in that the report is calling for knowledge democracy, urging oral traditions of knowledge to be creatively integrated with learning from written texts.
“Cognitive tools of thinking can be seamlessly mixed with arts-based, affective methods as well as with the practice of skills,” said Professor Budd Hall and Dr Rajesh Tandon, co-holders of the UNESCO chair in community based research and social responsibility in higher education.
Contributing to the debate as to whether universities should have a large share of their students studying for subjects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and only a small number of students in social sciences, the report had this to say: “It is a big mistake that financial support for the humanities in higher education is progressively drying up.”
According to Professor Sara Beatriz Guardia, the UNESCO chair in cultural heritage and sustainable tourism at the University of San Martín de Porres in Peru, modern capitalism has created a competitive society in which everybody must fight to survive and little importance is given to the community. In her assessment, Guardia thinks the mission of higher education has been corrupted by market values and the time has come to reverse the situation.
The selling point of the Futures of Education initiative is a realisation that most universities are elitist and have become far removed from the lives of the ordinary people who surround them.
Calling for a global public intellectual university for the 21st century, Professor Carlos Alberto Torres, the UNESCO chair in global learning and global citizenship education, noted that much research is currently being undertaken with the ultimate goal of profit and prestige.
A new role for universities
Highlighting the new role universities should take in the 21st century, Tiekie Barnard, chief executive officer of the Johannesburg-based Shared Value Africa Initiative, says universities have a responsibility to create a symbiotic relationship between themselves, businesses and society.
“It is the responsibility of the universities and business communities to create a better future for the coming generations,” said Barnard on 31 January when she addressed delegates attending the launch of a partnership on shared value between her organisation, Strathmore University Business School and several leading companies in Nairobi.
As a parting shot, UNESCO is reminding universities that the planet is becoming more fragile as persistent inequalities, social fragmentation, political extremism and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources have driven many societies to the brink of crisis.
But what is unclear is whether universities are ready for reforms that can drive an agenda of humanistic values in a world that is engaged in permanent and risky competition in all spheres of life.