The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities is a new network of universities whose mission to public service goes back to the foundation of Europe’s very first University in Bologna, in 1088. Since then, Universities have never been ‘ivory towers’ of experts, seeking to exist in perfect isolation. As generators of cutting-edge research and innovation, we have always been unique curators of knowledge:
- From Students to Citizens: We teach our students to be scientists and critical thinkers, but we also encourage them to take responsibility as volunteers, entrepreneurs, and interns. We also train teachers, social workers, and so many of the other professions that have a critical role in fostering citizenship and critical public engagement.
- From Citizens to Students: We have pioneered new learning, reaching new students through Massively Open Online Courses and other forms of distance learning. And our engagement with learning reaches from primary school to evening classes.
- Across Generations: As major employers in all the regions of Europe we engage all age groups and social groups in unique ways. We foster free debate on our campuses, inspire through exhibitions and showcases, and stimulate through plays, concerts and debates.
- Across Cultures: Universities are international places of learning, not least helped by Erasmus Plus. They are living laboratories of how we can better develop intercultural communication and understanding which lasts a lifetime.
- Across all faiths and none: universities are an important place of discussion around norms of ethical behavior, relating new, scientific knowledge to the norms and values of our communities.
- Across all of society: Our universities bring new perspectives to refugees; help students from disadvantaged social backgrounds succeed; and drive local economies within and beyond Europe’s economic heartlands.
Recent elections and plebiscites have provided rich evidence of stark societal divisions, with cultural, social, economic and generational divides reinforcing each other in Europe and beyond.
As Universities, we must:
- Infuse new passion and excitement for critical argument, learning, and the pursuit of truth – wherever this may lead us.
- Use our rich talent pool of students, academics and alumni to develop ever new forms of communication and argument.
- Take seriously the concerns of those that are disaffected and feel left behind. We are challenged to engage, listen and learn about their concerns and anxieties, and work with them to find new solutions.
- Learn from each other, using our rich experience – for instance, in fostering social mobility –as a resource to be shared.
We call on national and regional governments, and on the European Union, to:
- Use the Universities as a resource to ensure that the fruits of research and innovation are enjoyed by all. The future of Europe and its societies depends on research and innovation, which are disruptive in their essence: Universities are at the heart of this disruption, but they are also at the core of overcoming it. We offer our understanding of change, and our research capacity, to identify better the concerns and emotions of those who feel their way of life is threatened rather than enhanced.
- Support the universities’ engagement with the societies around them, through funding relevant research and supporting public engagement.
- Make use of our students – by far our most effective change-agents in finding new productive forms of communication. We call for the creation of Innovation and Initiative funds that develop fresh thinking around how knowledge and civic discourse can be communicated.
- Be imaginative and think outside the box: Could we complement Erasmus-Plus funded mobility through on-line tools that encourage and deepen intercultural learning? Could we develop new forms of online and community learning inspired by research? Can we use social media in new ways without compromising on the quality of debate? And can we find new forms of engagement whereby universities stay in touch with alumni to develop wider communities of critical engagement reaching deep into society?
- Foster a structured dialogue involving Universities, think-tanks, publishing companies, quality print media and social media representatives to see how we can enhance our critical communicative spaces shared by all – especially those we disagree with.
As universities we are proud of the knowledge we have produced, the ever-changing ways in which we have generated research and innovation, and how we have changed our engagement with citizens over time. Universities must use this adaptive resource to develop creative new ways to realize their public mission. And we call on the authorities at regional, national and European levels to use our knowledge and expertise to cross the cultural, generational and social divides in our society.