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Magna Charta Universitatum strengthens the ties between universities

Published: 18 June 2021

Over 900 universities from a large number of countries have signed the Magna Charta Universitatum – a declaration on academic freedom and the role of universities in society. The aim is to draw attention to the deep values that exist in university traditions and to encourage strong ties between universities.

Luleå University of Technology signed the declaration this year, and this week I had the honor of giving a speech as a representative of the new member universities. In the speech, I focused on the challenges that both societies and universities face and the role of universities in times like these, but also the importance of the Magna Charta Observatory for preserving and developing important global principles and values for universities worldwide.
Below, you who are interested can take part in the speech in its entirety. You can also watch two short films that were shown during the event: one of me signing the declaration and one on how Luleå University of Technology strives to practice important democratic principles, values and responsibilities.

Greetings from Birgitta

Speech – Magna Charta Universitatum

"First, I would like to express my gratitude to the organizers of this important event and for inviting me, as Vice-Chancellor of Luleå University of Technology in Sweden, to speak for all the new member universities.

The world has changed considerably since the first principles of Magna Charta were formed in 1998. We live in a world characterised by transformations and uncertainties. Change comes in many different forms: digitalisation, internationalisation, climate change and now the covid-19 pandemic.

And in a world of great change and uncertainty, fear and anxiety tend to grow. We have seen this clearly the last ten years in most countries in one way or another. With fear comes a movement towards the known, the safe and the traditional rather than a willingness to explore the unknown and to build bridges between cultures, nations and people.

Today, we are more connected to each other than ever before, thanks to the internet, digital platforms, and social media. At the same time our societies are becoming more and more divided and separated due to subgroups with very different worldviews or Weltanschauungs.

Digital services have become a fundamental part of people's everyday lives and they provide us with unique possibilities to interact with each other and make our voice heard. As such they offer people an important arena for democratic debate and for defending our modern societies but at the same time they are also powerful tools for spreading fake news and conspiracy theories. Lies are put forward as facts, and disinformation is easily and quickly forwarded and spread. This threatens freedom of expression, societal development and, in the long run, democracy.

As universities we have an important role to play here. We need to be the defenders of democracy, freedom of speech and equality, and we need to teach our students the importance of knowledge, facts and evidence as well as the difference between an opinion and an argument. These are important parts of a university education besides knowledge and skills in specific subjects. 

In a similar manner, academic freedom can never be taken for granted, it must always be activated and defended in our daily actions, in our words and activities. Even in Sweden, we see how this freedom is attacked and we see how political forces question research areas and individual courses and programs. In Sweden, as in other countries, gender equality, climate change and now vaccination and the pandemic are common areas under attack as a way of influencing the developments in our country. The same is true for threats and hatred directed at researchers, but also politicians and journalists. Key professions in a democratic society. Even if the groups acting against democracy and academic freedom still are in a minority they are often the more proactive and their voices are often the loudest. We must ask ourselves, why is this?

In times like this, it is of great value to have a strong community of friends and allies to lean on. The Magna Charta Observatory is such a community. A community that has promised to uphold the timeless values that guide universities and bind us together.

When changes is upon us it is more important than ever to debate and reflect on the role of universities. Will online education, MOOC-courses and EdTech platforms render universities obsolete, or will they force us to identify and strengthen the core of our purpose and values. I believe the latter and think that they will trigger interesting and important discussions such as the difference between content providers and knowledge creators.

It is also of great importance that the Magna Charta Universitatum of 2020 emphasize the crucial role of students for a university to be a university. Students has of course always been a crucial part of a university, but with time their roles have changed. Some speakers have also pointed out changes related to international student recruitment arguing that international students today have more than one purpose. Besides securing an international environment for a university and provide students with a broader understanding of different cultures and national conditions, international students also secure additional incomes for universities. This has resulted in discussions highlighting the difference between a student seen as a cocreator of her or his education compared to a customer consummating an educational service.

The last year, Covid-19 has also highlighted the effects of socioeconomic differences of students and staff, as well as differences within and between countries. As education moved from our universities into the homes of our students and staff, their working conditions suddenly differed and became very different. In some countries, the lack of internet connectivity even rendered home studies impossible and by that education inaccessible. But when the technology is available to all it creates a smaller and more closely knitted world, where our local and global colleagues are equally close to us.

The basic principle of Magna Charta that I would like to end with is that “The university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies, which differ in their structure as a result of different geographical and historical conditions. It produces, investigates, evaluates and passes on culture through research and teaching. In order to meet the needs of the outside world, universities' research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political, ideological and economic power groups.

By that I end my speech and send a thank you from all the new university members for being accepted to join the Magna Charta community together with over 900 universities from 88 countries.  Together we are stronger.

Thank You!"

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