The relevance and value of Higher Education can be derived from the challenges that each local community, region, and humanity more broadly is facing at any given moment. Today, our societies are confronted with a scenario of considerable uncertainties and multiple, complex and intertwined environmental, economic, social challenges. The 2030 Agenda, with its goals and targets, shows the way forward to comprehensively address poverty and inequalities by improving education, promoting access to common goods, spurring economic growth, while combating climate change. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) play an essential role in equipping both the young and elder generations with the skills to develop innovative, creative and sustainable solutions to address such challenges. In dialogue fora that the EU-LAC Foundation – an international organisation established by the member states of the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean – has implemented in recent months, several aspects have been put forward to transform the sector.
The nature of contemporary challenges requires fresh ways of approaching, analysing and addressing problems, and, as a consequence, the drawing on different knowledge systems, new pedagogical concepts, and teaching methodologies. HEIs need to go beyond the transmission of disciplinary knowledge and create learning environments that involve epistemic, interdisciplinary, and procedural dimensions which enable students to develop agency. This means the will to act responsibly and the setting of goals and road maps – and if needed, adjust them – to implement changes that positively influence their lives and the world around. The creation of such environments is a difficult task, for it involves the development of trust in students’ own potential and talents, critical self-reflection, emotional intelligence, knowledge sharing, communication and collaborative work across disciplines, institutions, distances, and cultures, the acceptance of ambiguities, dissonances, and dilemmas, and practical and procedural skills.
As a prerequisite for unleashing an HEI’s full potential, universities must address the continued gender imbalances and discriminations, implement policies to increase women’s representation at all academic stages and in the institutional governance structures, and revisit strategies to attract, facilitate access and offer guidance for women in STEM Higher Education programmes. Taking into account that violence against women penetrates all spheres of daily life – including HEIs – addressing the safety of women in facilities, campuses and the means of transport to and from HEIs, for example by the adoption of Protocols for the Prevention and the Attention of Gender Violence, has proven its effectiveness in practice.
Much has been said and written about universities, but there is the tendency to be dismissive of “traditional”, “alternative”, or “informal” knowledge systems in public discourse. Indeed, more often than not, such other sources and references are “folclorised” and hierarchically subordinated to “official” knowledge that corresponds to the scientific standards adopted by universities worldwide. Taking the rich indigenous knowledge in Latin America as an example, there is the pending task of generating spaces for articulation and interaction between diverse epistemologies and the co-production of knowledge, based on the conviction that all these knowledge systems can contribute to providing answers to the challenges faced by our societies in their respective contexts.
The technical possibilities of digitalisation and artificial intelligence, as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, play an important role in the transformation of the sector. However, the performance, resilience and capacity of HEIs to react in such challenging times critically depend on the availability and accessibility of the appropriate technical infrastructure, not only within the institutions themselves, but also among their students. They should be equipped accordingly and be able to count on internet coverage even in peripheral or rural zones of their countries. Technology is only as good as their users. Thus, HEIs need to make an effort to instruct their staff on how to incorporate technology adequately, supporting the creation of the aforementioned learning environments. In parallel, university communities and political decision makers should engage in continuous reflection on the appropriate roles of both technology and educators to ensure that digitalisation and new technologies remain human-centred.
Not least, much of the funding for scientific research and teaching in regions such as Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean stems from public sources. Ultimately, it is the citizenry that must recognise the critical role of Higher Education in the addressing of challenges of our times. Therefore, all efforts to transform the HE sector should be accompanied by strategies to transfer the results of research to political decision makers in an effective and adequate manner, in order to offer the information to generate reforms required at the policy level. Simultaneously, HEIs should develop more channels to enter into dialogue with the communities and societies in which they operate, offering access to knowledge generated at universities in pertinent languages and formats, and engaging citizens in dialogue and collaborative projects.
Whichever efforts HEIs enact, from the perspective of the EU-LAC Foundation, they should be relevant to the place and the region and respond to the specific circumstances, realities and needs of the societies in which they are embedded.