Democratic innovation and the university

Northern Ireland today, says Stephen Farry, is a case study of “peace as pursuit of war by other means”. Farry, who is Minister for Employment and Learning in the Northern Ireland Executive, sees a central role for universities in moving beyond a society divided by religious sectarianism and to a new form of responsible politics. Majoritarianism, he says, must be balanced against minority interests and human rights if there is to be reconciliation.

Farry was the opening speaker at the Higher Education for Democratic Innovation Global Forum at Queens University Belfast. This brought together universities and associated organizations from North America and Europe to take a fresh look at community engagement in an ever more divided world.

Tony Gallagher, who co-convened the forum, describes how Northern Ireland’s universities had stood apart during the worst years of violence. Today, he says, there is an urgency for engagement, a need to work for new forms of democracy that balance single-issue politics with practical and workable forms of social inclusion. One project at Queens that works to this end is the Prison to Peace programme. Jacki McDonald, one time political prisoner and now a Community Development Worker with Prison to Peace, described passing the Queens campus on the bus during the Troubles, never seeing the university as a real part of Belfast and the sectarianism that was tearing the city apart. Now, he sees access to education both as a key cause of Northern Ireland’s divisions and essential to eventual reconciliation.

The quiet intellectual force behind the Belfast meeting, and its co-convenor with Queens, was Ira Harkavy, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships and, for the past twenty years, one of the most influential thinkers about universities and the communities they serve. I first worked with Ira more than ten years ago, as part of a joint US/ South African programme to rethink the relationship between the university and the city. By this time, Penn had had a remarkable effect on West Philadelphia, using its economic muscle to invest back into the city and to counter the hollowing out of the urban core. As part of our work with the Center, we went to East Palo Alto, a low-income, working class city that services Stanford University and Silicon Valley. I well remember the sharp anger of a school principal who had banned researchers and dissertation students from her classrooms. She had had enough, she said, of her school being studied as a social problem. Instead, she wanted engagement and commitment to the issues on her priority list. Ira Harkavy’s work is all about this sort of approach to social innovation, building on John Dewey’s formative insight that democracy requires careful and deliberate attention to the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.

Then, as now, South Africa so often serves to calibrate these sort of transnational discussions because its institutions serve as exemplars of the ends of the spectrum. Then, we went to the US looking for ways in which the university in South Africa could engage with the still-prevalent traces of the apartheid city, sharply divided by race and economic circumstances. Speaking at the Belfast conference Ahmed Bawa, Vice-Chancellor of Durban University of Technology (DUT), outlined subtle but significant changes in the politics of South African reconciliation over the intervening years. Today, he says, 75% of his students are the first in their families to go to university; DUT is a cauldron of social mobility. But at the same time the urgency for engagement has been lost and the culture of “together” has been replaced by a “slide towards individualism”. There is a dwindling sense of education as a public good and, in contrast, an emerging preference for the sort of economic instrumentalism so characteristic of public policy in Europe and North America today. Ahmed wants a reconsideration of the intellectual project of education, a re-engineering in partnership with students.

There are new ideas emerging here, a new concept of the university as an “anchor institution” in the city. Stephen Farry makes the point that, despite a rightly-celebrated peace process in Northern Ireland, most young people’s experience of education before coming to university is of religious segregation; university may be the first time that Catholics and Protestants live and work together. Durban University of Technology cuts across the divided legacy of its city, bringing young adults whose heritage is the Zulu Kingdom with descendants of South Asian indentured labourers working colonial sugar plantations. The Belfast forum heard from James Harris and Marcine Pickron-Davis from Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, the most violent city in America. Here, $8m intended for a security fence to keep the city’s communities off the Widener campus was redirected to founding a Charter School to provide an alternative to a dysfunctional public school system. Across Manchester’s City Region, all our universities bring together young people from the most diverse backgrounds imaginable, from more than two hundred countries; the largest concentration of international students in Britain. John Dewey’s challenge – that we navigate the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions – is still pertinent today.

Higher Education for Democratic Innovation Global Forum, Belfast 25-27 June. Organized by the Council of Europe, International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy, European Students’ Union and Queen’s University Belfast.