Brenda Gourley: Universities must work for peace and equality

'We have debated before what it means to be educated. Never before has it been central to our survival'
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11 September 2001 is a date that will be engraved upon our minds for the rest of our lives, not just because of the shock and the horror of human tragedy, not just because of the gross cruelty inflicted upon human beings by fellow human beings, but because it was the day on which the golden barricades of the First World were breached in a manner unimaginable to most of us.

I use the word "barricades" advisedly. It is the word used by the Shell Group when they described two equally plausible scenarios for the future. The first scenario they dubbed "the story of barricades". Essentially, the biggest divide in the world is between rich and poor countries. The scenario planners saw this situation as basically unsustainable.

The second scenario is entitled "the new frontiers story". This is where the liberalisation of economies continues and there is a shift in the centre of gravity in the world's economies. By the end of the scenario period the world is a very different place, largely due to the fact that "rich and poor alike have come to realise their economic, social and environmental interdependence."

Political, social and economic theorists from all over the world are sounding alarm bells about a status quo that cannot be sustained. Social theorist Manuel Castells tells us that the most striking consequence of the new global network society is its corrosive effect on equality and social justice."Entire countries around the world and large segments of the population everywhere are gradually becoming excluded."

Technology gives every indication of increasing this divide. In the global context we know that in India, for example, only one per cent of households has internet access while in Singapore access is close to 50 per cent. Right here in the UK, a Family Expenditure Survey last year shows not only the vast differences in access but that those differences relate to income and are growing.

We are at an important turning point. If we keep our heads through this crucial time we are still in a very precarious state and it will take all of our collective and individual wills to do whatever it is that we are required to do to make a more peaceful and equitable world. It is one of the great ironies of our time that thanks to the spread of democracy, more people than ever before in human history have a chance to influence their governments while at the same time globalisation is eroding government's ability to act on their behalf. We have seen in Europe the helplessness of a large bloc to deal with tides of refugees and ethnic war.

The reality is that none of us, on our own, can undertake all that is necessary to the task. Corporations, governments, international development agencies, institutions such as the United Nations, the fast-growing organs of civil society: all must be involved. Universities must involve themselves in this endeavour or forever abandon any pretence they may have to educating, in the words of the UNESCO declaration on Higher Education "for citizenship and active participation in society, with a worldwide vision, for endogenous capacity building, for the consolidation of human rights, sustainable development, democracy and peace, in a context of justice".

The Association of Commonwealth Universities makes the point that "21st-century academic life is no longer pursued in seclusion (if it ever was) but must rather champion reason and imagination in engagement with the wider society and its concerns". What we do is reflected in what we teach and research. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, says: "Universities continue to do their least impressive work on the very subjects where society's need for greater knowledge is most acute – public education, poverty and blighted urban and rural communities, corruption, social work and human services, refugee issues, war, Aids orphans. We have debated before what it means to be educated, to be a global citizen. Never before have the answers been central to our very survival."

The essential skills of learning communities include the need to aspire to be something different. We can either embrace the rich mosaic of our human cultures, races, religions, genders, or seek refuge within the familiar. It is a time for strong intellectual leadership, which affirms the ties that bind us as citizens of the same planet, and the ethics of a common humanity.

This is an edited version of the first speech given to the Open University by the Vice-Chancellor designate