Universities must be agents of social transformation

Monday, 10 April 2006

Universities, like other state institutions, are mandated to serve the common good and to achieve that they are required to be agents of social change, an international gathering of academic leaders was told today.

Delivering a keynote address to the Association of Commonwealth Universities Conference of Executive Deans being held at the University of Adelaide, Dr Lynn Arnold said it was important but not sufficient for universities to produce enough graduates in appropriate disciplines for a country's development needs and provide a foundation for research and scholarship.

This was particularly so in pre-democratic or transitionary situations where any or all of the three arms of government - executive, legislative and judicial - were only partially developed.

"Unlike the traditionally more constrained structures of government, universities have the capacity to provide environments where the creative tension of ideas can be exercised and dispassionate policy discourse can take place for the benefit not only of the academic participants in such activities but also for the whole society," he said.

Dr Arnold, a former Premier of the State of South Australia and a graduate of the University of Adelaide, is Vice-President of the Asia-Pacific Region for World Vision International. His address focused on the responsibilities of modern universities from a community perspective and paid tribute to the work of another conference speaker, Professor M W Makgoba, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

"Professor Makgoba is addressing the context confronting his own university in a situation of significant development challenge; however, his questions are directly relevant to many other universities around the world and his phrases 'how is our scholarship contributing effectively' and 'are we pursuing truth with a purpose and a sense of social responsibility' are templates that can be used in self-examination by any university anywhere," Dr Arnold said.

He added that it was appropriate for universities to ask themselves whether they had played significant roles in facing the challenges in such areas as HIV/AIDS, gender equality, social development and alleviating hunger - "or have universities argued that such issues are none of their business but the preserve of non-governmental organisations and government policy makers?"

He said hunger was clearly not the sole responsibility of universities, but "in my opinion it is within the brief of universities to play their part".

"If hunger is seen simply as no more than locational or situational food resource deficit that exacts a tragic human toll, then perhaps universities can leave its tackling to others," he said "But such a view of hunger is limited and unsatisfactory. My view is that hunger is not simply an outcome of the lack of food resources in any particular context; it is more often a symptom of the malfunctioning of a complex of systems."

Dr Arnold argued that the role of universities in such situations was to explain the nature of system malfunctioning as well as to elaborate on causal relationships and to make propositions for policy and system change which can then be debated in the public arena.

In a wide-ranging address, he also highlighted the important role universities could play as drivers of the "democratic endeavour" and in promoting social research into ways in which the poor can be enfranchised in the Information Age.

"The reality is that unless the poor are given more opportunities to access information, they will find themselves even more disempowered than they may be now as the Information Age becomes more pervasive," he said.


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Michael Benson
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Communications Director
Association of Commonwealth Universities
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