Universities as Local Development Agencies in the Ambit of the Internationalization of Higher Education

di Ida Castiglioni, Alberto Giasanti, Cristina Messa.

We have written [Castiglioni, Giasanti, 2010, 2012] that the interdependent relationship among research and education, freedom of teaching and autonomy in academic governance are been the guidelines of the European university model [Humbolt 1810]. They have allowed for significant progress in the production of new forms of knowledge and the rise in social well-being. In this time of neo-conservative public policy, this model appears to be questioned in favor of models that merge the development of knowledge with short-term economic interests. Market logic fragments the university mission; universities respond to the growing demand for higher education by creating short degree programs and by regarding students as consumers [Boulton, Lucas 2008].  At the same time, individual universities’ autonomy is being questioned through a focus on hierarchies and centralized decision-making. Thus higher education will function less as a public social project in the mid- and long-term.

These are issues that refer to a series of questions that fuel national, European and international debates on the development of higher educational systems.

So, who will be the main users of university education in the near future? What factors will influence the supply and demand of graduates?  Will the tri-level (undergraduate, post-graduate, doctorate) become the general model or will regional or group differences reign? Like universities will they cooperate more and more with outside partners in research and teaching? If not, how will they compete for their own independence? How will higher educational systems contribute to societal progress?  In the ever more internationalized world what will it mean to be a citizen; how will that category be defined?

In the paper we will address only some of these important issues and, perhaps, mainly whether by becoming a citizen itself, universities have abdicated their roles of developer of citizenry. It is possible that through more committed processes of internationalization they will also be able to regain their original educational purpose of creating citizens.

It is important to emphasize how universities’ progressively rising number of tasks makes them increasingly important as agents for local development [European Commission 2003].Therefore the university is measured not only on the basis of quality of knowledge and human capital, but also on the level of embedded social capital within a certain region. Value is added in those contexts where suitable skills resulting from constant investment in university education and professional qualification are useful. The university must offer more and more spaces in which people (even those from abroad, and quite far away) can come together, ask questions, make demands and offer experiences. These social and professional practices pass through the university arena and return to their origins enriched by the exchange of new perspectives. These ideas that come from places of action and dynamic collectivity outside, stimulate the inside through continuous co-mingling with critical practice and knowledge that foster change with a view toward action research. Thus the university becomes a meeting ground for theories and practices that produce knowledge by placing different forms of understanding in dialog with each other and build connections while maintaining difference.

This is a vision of the university as a critical conscience of society that, perhaps, even requires a rethinking of the role of professors as intellectuals and generators of doubt rather than certainty [Treves 2009; Giasanti, 2009], who base themselves on scientific knowledge that by nature is open to change and thus relative and provisional.

Development and Cooperation

If one were to measure the relative good and bad political practices of development and the effects international cooperation has induced at the end of the century, the sum would certainly be negative.  The gap between rich and poor has widened and the prevalent economic concept of development still focuses on social, cultural and environmental aspects. One of the principal issues of cooperation is the very ambiguity of the concept of development, which in the most prevalent interpretations, seems to have little to do with the quality of life of communities, the needs of populations or regional resources.

In the years following World War II development became synonymous with growth and economic wealth, and cooperation came to mean technical aid from ‘Northern’ countries (the so-called donor countries) toward countries in the ‘South’ of the world (so-called receiver countries).This has brought about a perverse relationship between donor and recipient countries.

The ever-expanding culture of assistance has become more exclusionary and impedes recipient individuals and communities from taking on active and reciprocal roles using their own resources and capacities. Since the ‘90s, however, (at the international conferences in Rio de Janeiro on the environment, in Vienna on human rights, in Cairo on population, in Beijing on gender, in Istanbul on habitat, in Rome on food and in Copenhagen on social development) international cooperation has tried to confront important topics like poverty, unemployment and social marginalization with the goal of signaling ways to make development more fair and humane.

Still, it is obvious that development results from a complex material process involving different social agents and that marginalization is a logical consequence of the means of production in certain societies and times in history.  It is thus insufficient to add adjectives to the term ‘development’ ‘like sustainable, local, community, participatory, integrated, lasting, alternative, etc. – to contrast the competitive logic that sustains the still primary idea of development as continual economic growth.  It is necessary to build or reconstruct a critical culture that is able to question the very content of development and that can strive to create a society based on quality of life rather than quantity, on cooperation rather than competition, on reduction rather than accumulation and limitless consumption  [Latouche 2007].

If cooperation is in crisis, it is because still today it is based on ideologies and intervention capitalistic models that come from the end of World War II, which are inadequate today from a social and ethical point of view.  From an ethical point of view, more than half a century of experience has shown that cooperation is still unevenly weighed in favor of donor countries and functions toward their economic and ideological hegemony. This contributes to the widening gap between rich and poor rather than reducing it.  From a social point of view, the application of a Western model of cooperation shows exclusionary strategies of competition [Carrino 2005] in which some fight for dominance over others in an international context of dramatic change in power relationships between no longer hegemonic countries and emerging ones.

Given this, how can we open up a space of critical comparison on ideas and practices of change in which cooperation can take on the role of a research laboratory?  A concrete possibility lies in taking the local community as an example. The local community is made up of a strong synergy among a region, a population and a government that represents it.  It is the level of organization best placed to strive for a better quality of life and to respond meaningfully to the collective needs of the population. The local community seems to be the de-centered cooperation model of the future since it favors people’s direct and active participation in decision making through suitable local politics.

Furthermore, a critical approach must totally abandon the still wide-spread idea and practice that cooperation happens between donor and recipient countries and should be based on a nexus among regions, partnerships and constructive relationships between different cultural agents who acknowledge each other through the work of co-operation.  A famous example of direct democracy is the Brazilian “participatory budget” experience in Porto Alegre.  This was a grass-roots assembly of citizens’ groups, neighborhood groups, grass-roots committees, etc. in which the local population decided where and how to dedicate community funds to improve quality of life.  The goals of this grass-roots participation are to fairly distribute resources and to build a regional regulatory panel compatible with the demands and needs of the local population Building these local societies’ fair networks can be defined as a bottom-up co-operation, which is also a world strategic network. This project, through the participation of Local Social Forums and Local Governments, has started building this new form of co-operation [The New Municipium, 2003].

Taking the region as a system implies considering it as a seat of continuously transforming integration processes between nature and culture, and as a place of exchange among different communities. Such a practice requires an intercultural approach that acknowledges these differences and can put their synergy and complementarity to good use. This can only happen of we restore the etymological meaning of the word co-operation, to operate jointly understanding that mutual aid allows for a better solution to local problems. Furthermore, local regions can make important contributions by opposing issues that derive from current global development such as [Carrino 2005]: excessive urbanization, the phenomenon of social disintegration; regional vulnerability, marginalization of weak areas, the consequences of conflicts, etc.

Therefore, the goal of a de-centered co-operation process is to construct a complex exchange network among local communities. These exchanges, understood as laboratories of action-research, allow comparisons of culture and different experiences as well as trials of possible alternative solutions through intercultural projects that stimulate positive change.

University as co-operation agent

It seems urgent to revise the notion of the current culture of co-operation as an uneven balance between haves and haves not.