Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education"
An exchange on the essay A Higher Calling for Higher Education

Cristina Escrigas

First of all, I want to thank you all for reacting to my paper and sharing your experiences and ideas. I have been gratified and edified by your comments. And I would like to thank Paul Raskin and his team as well for hosting this on the Great Transition Network, a key tool for reflection and action to influence the transformation of our societies. It has been a great privilege to have had the opportunity to share my ideas in the original essay and now to share some brief responses.

As many of you have observed, we cannot consider a Great Transition in humanity, let alone any big change in society, without involving education. This is especially the case when such a change requires a paradigm shift to spur the evolution toward an interconnected, sustainable, inclusive, and peaceful world. As several commenters noted, education must play an important role in our aspirations to building a better world. I absolutely agree, and I would encourage this and other communities that are working toward a better future to include education and the role of knowledge in their reflection on and action for social transformation.

As expressed in the 5th GUNi World Report Knowledge, Engagement and Higher Education Contributing to Social Change (2013), our first aim must be “to look at our changing understandings about who the agents of knowledge creation are and how the creation, distribution and use of knowledge are linked to our aspirations for a better world.” The report continues, “Knowledge is linked to practical skills, to our working lives and to universal and abstract thought. Knowledge is created every day by each one of us and is central to who we are as human beings. Knowledge tells us who we are and who we are not. Knowledge tells us how the world is and how to interact with it, how to live and prosper.” Available knowledge has shaped our assumptions about what we have to do in life, and how to do it, in order to be successful and happy. We thus have a large responsibility throughout all our institutions to spread the emerging body of knowledge that is questioning the collective assumptions about how our world works. For example, this will require a shift from competition to cooperation as the main strategy for human evolution, and a shift toward a sense of “common-unity” (community) of all living beings as central to our collective survival.

Education cannot remain on the side lines in the debate about social transformation. Real changes will not be achieved if this transition is not made in education as a whole.  

However, as some commenters have pointed out, the responsibility goes beyond higher education. Every type and level of education has its role to play. The shadow of pressing global issues can be seen in every single decision we make every day, and making this connection clear in our education systems is a key part of educating a responsible glocal citizenry. Individuals create society as it is. Therefore, delving deeper into the role of education systems in reproducing—and potentially challenging—societal structures and paradigms must be a high priority in advancing social responsibility worldwide.

Second, it is my pleasure to recognize the great initiatives that are taking place all over the world in universities and HEIs as described in several comments. Things have been moving fast over the last ten years, and I have been chronicling some of this work through the GUNi world reports on higher education. So I am well aware of the good work that has been done in the field of sustainability worldwide and in community-university engagement as a way of understanding and foster social transformation.

There are countless relevant experiences in hundreds of institutions in all parts of the world, in part linked to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014). Nevertheless, it must be said, as several of you have noted, that these initiatives are not yet mainstream. In 2012, I had the great opportunity to co-organize an event at Rio+20 UN Conference (2012) which brought together thirteen international networks, five government representatives, civil society, students, and UN representatives. In this forum, and for the first time, the role of education was included in the statement of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, “The Future We Want.”

These steps are essential, but the main road to transforming HEIs still lies before us waiting to be walked.  We need a strong commitment from those inside and outside the education sector who are raising their voices to change paradigms and take action. The work ahead is huge, but it is not impossible. It has to be done from the bottom up and the top down, both inside and outside systems and institutions. We need to mobilize academics, practitioners, researchers, HE experts, policymakers at all levels, and NGOs and civil society, to be agents in this urgent transformation of our education systems, to play a relevant role in this human transition.

The transformation of education at all levels, as mentioned by numerous commenters, calls for the involvement of all social actors. Nevertheless, academia has an essential role to play. Academia worldwide has to identify its responsibility in this transformation and its space for action. The problems of social transformation cannot be treated as “external” to HEIs. Even issues of marketization and whether higher education is a public good, which some of you have highlighted, could be addressed from inside as well. Universities are learning institutions and should now be able to learn from their recent experience and become more proactive in changing their current roles. HEIs face many external pressures, but they are no excuse for inaction. It is time to build transformative knowledge to drive social change.

Cristina Escrigas
Cristina Escrigas is the former executive director of, and current adviser to, the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) and former director of the UNESCO Chair in Higher Education Management.

Cristina Escrigas, author's response to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education," Great Transition Initiative (June 2016),

Back to Publication

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.