Brenda Gourley: We must all engage with the community

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The Independent Online

In September, the heads of 28 universities from 22 different countries gathered together in Talloires, France, to sign a special Declaration to renew our commitment to the social responsibilities carried by universities everywhere. We committed ourselves to promoting the engagement of ourselves and our universities with our communities, both local and global. The Talloires Declaration has been posted on the internet at conference/dec.shtml - and a site called the Talloires Network is under construction.

The Declaration emphasises universities' "unique obligation to listen, understand and contribute to social transformation and development". Such an obligation should find expression in teaching and research. It should also find expression in how universities form a community (and represent the diversity that society displays), as well as how they govern themselves. Institutions demonstrate their values most powerfully by their actions rather than their words.

The Open University engages in a range of activities with communities, as well as teaching and research targeted at particular community issues. One of its most powerful activities is, of course, extending the boundaries of access to education, not just in Britain but elsewhere in the world. There can hardly be another institution in the world which so profoundly changed the rules of the game in higher education than the Open University. It continues to give substantial assistance to institutions which want to emulate it - and there are now Open Universities all around the world. All of them count the OU in Britain as their model, and many were established with our help.

In Talloires we pondered how we could use the internet to combine our efforts to tackle issues which concern us all and to which we could all make a contribution. To the students on campuses around the world, we can now add those which constitute a virtual community such as that created by the Open University. We have 250,000 students in daily contact with one another, enjoying seminars, chat rooms, support groups, clubs, societies, blogs and more. Imagine the possibilities for action if we combined all these communities, wherever they may be, and added a focus on a particular issue to our ongoing civic engagement efforts. We already constitute over 100 million university students and about several million staff worldwide, a figure expected to double by 2025. Add to that our alumni. We could change the world! I invite our readers to join hands in this endeavour - wherever you may be.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-Chancellor of the Open University