Last week’s G7 summit in Canada was said to be an acrimonious affair, with trade deals and tariffs the subject of tense debate. To many of us, it seemed the latest example of a seismic shift away from multilateral cooperation towards more isolationist approaches, as national interests increasingly trump the greater good.
But if ‘every country for itself’ has become a modern mantra, it certainly wasn’t the case at another international summit – also in Canada – at which a more cooperative spirit prevailed, and at which I was pleased to speak. This was the 2018 Conference of Montreal, where more than 200 leaders from the political and academic communities, public and private sectors, and civil society came together to discuss the economic uncertainties of globalisation, but this time with a firm focus on international dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.
At the ACU, multilateral cooperation underpins everything that we do, and I was particularly pleased that the summit also brought an opportunity to become the latest signatory of an important new international agreement in higher education: the Declaration of Montreal. This agreement will bring the ACU together with six international university networks – Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF); the International Association of Universities; the Union of Universities of Latin America, the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education; the Association of African Universities; and the Association of Arab Universities – to promote inter-university solidarity on an unprecedented scale, transcending context and cultural differences to face shared global challenges in higher education.
Collectively, our seven university associations represent higher education institutions across 171 countries, from Palestine to Mexico, Belize to Bangladesh. Through a common commitment to higher education, these seven networks unite disparate and divided nations across geographical and cultural borders in ways that traditional diplomacy could only dream of. And then there’s our scale: combining the members of just two of the signatories – the ACU and the AUF – creates an extended global network of more than 1,300 universities.
So, in terms of sheer breadth and reach, we are undoubtedly a powerful grouping. But how do we turn scale into impact?
Strength in numbers
As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers – and particularly when frameworks exist to bring them together. A convergence of globally dispersed networks, united by common aims, creates a powerful engine for change. This is particularly true when organisations campaign on shared issues – equal education for women and girls, the need for quality HE provision, and support for university research, to name but a few. Here, there is great potential for ‘networks of networks’ to come together and present a compelling, and truly global, case to governments and policymakers.
To these ends, global networks such as the ACU and the Declaration of Montreal are vital enabling mechanisms for joint action in the common interest. They connect, they coordinate and they convene, harnessing the wealth of perspectives, insights, and experience shared by those they represent. And, in doing so, they acknowledge a fundamental truth of our times: the global challenges we face cannot be overcome in isolation.
These formidable challenges – climate change, public health, peace and security – demand collective action across borders. They require large scale international research collaborations that can address complex questions. They invite joint initiatives and shared resources to widen access and ensure opportunities are there for the many, not the few. And they make it even more vital that we work together to prepare future generations for a fast-changing and often volatile world.
Standing up for university values
Just as importantly, university networks can be a powerful, collective voice for the value of higher education to society. By virtue of the breadth and number of the institutions they represent, this voice is amplified a hundred times over, ensuring it is not only heard but has the power to influence national and international agendas more than any institution can do alone.
We, as university networks, have a responsibility to use this voice – and to do so stridently. The onus is on us not only to highlight the challenges our members face – employability, inclusivity, quality – but also the value of higher education to development, democracy, and society at large. The perilous state of funding for universities and university research in many countries requires us constantly to defend their value as a public good, and the Declaration of Montreal reminds us of this imperative, calling on its signatories to affirm the key role of universities as leaders of societal change. In this, it is not simply a powerful alliance, but a shared manifesto.