Is it possible to develop Higher Education models characterized by academic excellence and solidarity that integrate teaching, research and social engagement, and contribute to building and caring for our common home?

 

The I Global Symposium UNISERVITATE (PORTICUS-CLAYSS) gather university authorities, professors, students and researchers from Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) from all over the world around this question. Based on the presentation of several global Service-Learning (SL) experiences, the answer was clear: it is possible and necessary to build integral models of Higher Education, rooted in society, committed to the production of knowledge for the common good. In other words, time and time again, they manifested the need to make new educational pact come true, based on an alliance that acknowledge the value of others and strengthens the solidarity culture. Those are central issues in a polyhedric, multicultural and interreligious world.

The Symposium, which helped shape a global community of SL institutions and actors, was an instance of knowledge building and learning socialization. It offered an opportunity to friendly share SL research, projects and institutionalization processes in Higher Education. It also triggered reflections on the identity and mission of Higher Education (HE) and the dream of being all brothers, with this context in mind, here I describe some of them.

 

Why an engaged and solidarity Higher Education today?

The HEI around the world debate whether to be “institutions for themselves” or “solidarity institutions”. Each of these perspectives entails a paradigm: a way of being and doing in society; teaching styles, research and social engagement; specific institutional policies and cultures. The 21st century poses us challenges to develop an integral education, to achieve deep learning that encourages reflection on reality (and from/with it) to provide comprehensive solutions to complex problems. The HEIs aim is to focus on civic engagement and the common good, build knowledge with society and at the service of human development.

The panellists and participants of the Symposium agreed to highlight the SL contribution to link the three missions of the University in a cross-cutting and comprehensive way: research, teaching and extension/social engagement. Quality teaching seeks to ensure learning that addresses the problems of today’s world and contributes, not just to understand, but to solve them. SL has made significant contributions to this work, as research works from different parts of the world, presented at the event, has proved for several decades, and which are available on “serious and committed” academic websites and global networks.

As public spaces for debate, training and solidarity, HEIs are urged to build an inclusive society, where everybody learns from everybody. As stated at the Symposium, the HEIs curriculum, their solidarity training experiences that guarantee an integral, democratic and rights-promoting education, and their professional ethics specialized in humanity must materialize the desire to build solidarity.

The HEIs engagement to the world needs rigour and depth, science and awareness. So it is necessary to ask how faithful the institutions are to their identity and mission and to rediscover the reason and purpose of their existence. An engaged and solidarity University seeks to co-create knowledge with the community, States, governments and society as a whole, cultivating the culture of giving and conducting engaged and applied research that contributes to the improvement of society and University itself. That involves paradigm shifts, planned institutional transitions that enable going from “walled universities/ivory towers” to “universities networks/sources of life” (in and out), accept interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches and coordinate their actions to implement integral educational.

 

Why an engaged and solidarity Catholic Higher Education?

Pope Francis, in his proposal for the Global Educational Compact (2020), has called on the Catholic Institutions of Higher Education (CHEIs) to make integral education a reality, “to join hands, head and heart”. The presentations of the Symposium expressed their engagement to this compact and deepened reflection on the spiritual dimension as a central aspect of human beings and an institutional feature typical of a multicultural and inter-religious global village. Spirituality was an aspect mentioned that comprises everybody and transcends religion, and which manifests in different ways in different geographical regions. Through SL, it also has an opportunity to be experienced in the joyful union between givers and takers. The solidarity experience promotes the development of mysticism of the encounter that values diversity as wealth, fraternal love as communion and dialogue as a means of mutual learning.

The Symposium highlighted the SL potential as a tool to integrate what is fragmented: teaching, research, extension and spirituality-religiosity-pastoral. It was an opportunity for CHEIs to witness and prove academic excellence from solidarity. Therefore, a quality SL, in its many and varied manifestations all over the world, is a way to meet the deep meaning of the identity and mission of CHEIs and the charisms that are part of the Church. In turn, it fosters integration between science and faith; know – know how – know how to be; academic, personal and professional training. Inspired by The Ecclesiastical Magisterium and experience (God’s people), SL contributes to embodying and embracing reality; going to the peripheries, both geographical and existential, and learning from them; getting experience from a Church which goes forth and including us/ourselves in the community.

 

UNISERVITATE: the voice and cries of the youths

The I Global Symposium UNISERVITATE emphasized the relevance of building engaged and solidarity CHEIs that include authorities, professors, researchers and students in the development and implementation of institutional policies and cultures that educate the mind and heart and produce new knowledge by working side by side with and from the community.  It has confirmed that listening (and accompanying) the voice and cries of young people is an essential and revolutionary starting point. The longings and dreams of young people (and youths) should be central to the CHEIs, and their vocational search should inspire the practices and projects underpinning them.

One of the main messages left by the Symposium is that academic excellence does not oppose solidarity. On the contrary: the institutionalized solidarity experience contributes to academic excellence committed to the longings and dreams of humanity. This way, academic excellence and solidarity are two sides of the same coin that has SL as a pedagogy that contributes to an integral education in the HEIs. So it is clear that we need to understand solidarity as an act of justice and social transformation that poses unjust structures and dynamics as a problem and acknowledges everyone’s right to goods. For this to happen, the HEIs need to institutionalize SL and highlight it as a central aspect of their institutional policies and cultures. The HEIs need to become increasingly rooted in society, which requires political viability (decision) and the generation of the necessary conditions.

UNISERVITATE is an invitation to change education and contribute to changing the world, helping to find once more the meaning of the University while transmitting that it is possible to transform society. In this sense, we want to make Jesus’ message an experience and be messengers of hope. Contrary to the logic of individualism and mercantilism that often characterize education, we express:

“Anyone who wants to be first, […] must be the servant of all” (Mk 9:35).