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2006 - XXVIII Anniversary

Political Approaches to University Identity

Aula Absidale Santa Lucia, University of Bologna
Via de Chiari 25


14-15 September 2006




The politics of the European university are a perennial theme for higher education institutions although most of the time people understand this to refer to the organisation of power inside academia: what structures can help universities to be more effective in meeting their instructional and investigative ambitions and how can individuals - professors, administrators or students reach consensus or find their way to common achievement? The problem focuses on developing a community of purpose among university members. This is not the approach proposed in the 2006 yearly event of the Magna Charta Observatory.


The politics of the European university can also be understood as the ways academia integrates the society it is part of: what is the role public authorities expect universities to play in developing the polis, how should this supportive social function be encouraged, monitored or steered? The question is about the dialogue between the university and its supporting group, that is the definition of common purposes for the better future of a community the institution belongs to. This is the approach to European politics of higher education the organisers proposed in 2006.


Hence the need not to limit the debate to intra-university considerations but to open the discussion to a wide group of social partners, in particular the politicians who determine the conditions and constraints defining the scope and means of academic teaching and research. And such a definition of higher education functions has a long history in Europe: universities in the Middle Ages were to train those professionals organising people and society, not to say people in society: they were the physician, the jurist and the cleric who had been formed in the major faculties (Medicine, Law or Theology) after a preliminary training in the Arts, the minor faculty that offered shared references in language, on the way to personal expression, and in mans place in the cosmos, thus setting obligations to the persons natural and cultural environment. At the Renaissance, universities fought for specific understandings of mans humanity, taking side for the Reformation or the Counter-Reformation and becoming political tools for transforming society to new ideals. In the 19th century, universities were understood as the shapers of national belonging, the centres where people could learn and share a common view of existence that made sense of group identity.


Who are we in society and how does collective belonging influence each individuals growth? Is the university the crucible where to debate the reproduction and the renewal of the community or is it the forum where to imagine the future of wealth and invent the technologies leading to material and intellectual development? These perennial questions, political by nature, were also asked after World War II - as they are posed today. That is why the Observatory commissioned a historian of institutions, like Anne Corbett from the London School of Economics and Political Science, to put in long-term perspective the expectations governments and officials have had of universities as partners in European integration. It also offered as background material the recommendation which the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted on 2 June 2006 on the needs for academic freedom and institutional autonomy in todays Europe. That is also why political figures with a strong interest in higher education were given the floor in the 2006 Bologna event, be they MPs (Morten stergaard from Denmark) or former Ministers of Education (Luigi Berlinguer in Italy or Jaak Aaviksoo in Estonia) or former Prime Ministers (Garrett FitzGerald in Ireland) not to speak of the present Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg (Maud de Boer-Buquicchio).


From these points and counterpoints should grow the image of a European university with political rights and obligations, an institution committed to the long-term transformation of society. This is not necessarily the functions academics would like to take up but societys changing hopes and intellectual ambitions certainly represent constraints and conditions for the development of their institution in Europe. The addresses and interventions made in Bologna in September 2006 (see below) should help determine what is, for today and tomorrow, the most relevant identity of a truely political asset for our societies, the university- in its European integration context in particular.


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