“Universities must see truth as an aspiration, not as a possession”
With this quotation Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, appealed to university leaders at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in London to confront the rise of populism with courage and integrity.
To prove her point, UK national media coverage of this important speech focused on her salary, not on her comments about the transformative power of education in creating individual opportunity. Indeed, education saves lives. As Richardson noted, a child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to survive than the child of a mother who cannot.
Apparently, the salary of a university president attracts more attention than how we save lives in different parts of the world, because the issue feeds on emotions of justice, social (in)equality and fairness. How, then, can universities engage with the world of ‘post-truth’ and alternative facts, where arguments based on sentiment and emotion dominate the discussion, and often trump evidence? As Prof. Richardson has suggested, universities must lead the way in making evidence more available, accessible, and compelling. We must become no less than activists for the truth.
In this mission for universities, it makes no sense to separate research from research-led education. The Commission is on to something when both the modernisation of higher education strategy, and the Lamy report, try to bring education and research more closely together.
The Commission’s focus is clear: we must do better in teaching transferrable skills, in equipping students with the tools to master the labour market of the 21st century. But the need to equip students with integrity, responsibility, and respect for those of differing views is as important. Citizenship in the 21st century means embracing complexity, navigating ambiguity, and getting involved in society, physically and virtually.
How can governments and the EU, support better this function, which is not just the essence of education, but is also critical for the sustainability of good governance? In Richardson’s terminology, the next Framework Programme, and Erasmus+ must support researchers and students in being activists for the truth – through research, in the workplace, and in public life.