Thomas Ekman Jørgensen
In the spring of 2021, the European University Association (EUA), representing more than 800 members across the continent, published its vision for 2030: “Universities without walls”. This document lays out the idea of universities that are deeply integrated with the rest of society at the local, national and international levels. Universities are spaces where diverse learners with different goals are part of the university community - for longer or shorter periods, they will be places of encounters and cooperation with many different partners.
Sustainable development is and will continue to be a fundamental guiding principle for this societal engagement, focusing on the interplay between the goals of protecting the environment and providing wellbeing across the planet. This work will require new levels of cooperation between disciplines within universities as well as with external partners.
While working with these partners, universities will also stand firm on their values. They will be places of academic freedom, with respect for evidence-based debates, and areas of respite to think about new ideas and new perspectives on society and the universe. Serendipity and the dedication to knowledge, research and education for their own sake are not in contradiction to providing solutions to societal challenges.
Looking more concretely at the future and the role that the larger context plays for realising the vision of a university without walls, EUA published a follow-up report on scenarios. This report looked at possible developments in geopolitics, digitalisation and the role of democracy in Europe, and how these would affect the ambitions outlined in “Universities without walls”. These showed that the main risks to realising this vision would be one-dimensional thinking and utilitarianism.
One-dimensional thinking supposes that universities have one function, being either ivory-tower institutions purely engaged with the production of knowledge for its own sake or cogs in the macro-economic machinery to increase competitiveness. Universities are not only producers of knowledge for its own sake and contributors to competitiveness; they are also vehicles for cultural and inter-cultural exchanges, critical debates, social inclusion and much more. Moreover, universities can combine all these functions in ways that create new questions and new knowledge. Likewise, with utilitarianism, universities are institutions with their own values and goals; they are not vehicles for policies developed elsewhere. Therefore, they should not, as is often the case in geopolitics, become instruments in a struggle between global powers. This is also true for learning and teaching, which are much more than tools for providing learners with labour market-relevant skills.
University values must be protected, for example, from democratic backsliding, but also from being controlled by commercial interests. The digital transformation is particularly relevant here, as the pandemic has boosted the digitalisation of universities, which comes with the risk of being dominated by the commercial interests of technology companies.
 See “Universities without walls – A vision for 2030” EUA, 2021: https://www.eua.eu/resources/publications/957:universities-without-walls-%E2%80%93-eua%E2%80%99s-vision-for-europe%E2%80%99s-universities-in-2030.html
 See Pathways to the future A follow-up to “Universities without walls – A vision for 2030”, EUA 2021: https://eua.eu/downloads/publications/pathways%20to%20the%20future%20report.pdf