Universities are the perfect fora for debating the Commonwealth’s future

It is no accident that universities are prominent in protests over ties to the slave trade and movements to decolonise education, says Joanna Newman

September 21, 2022
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Commonwealth universities, often drawing on existing links, are proving adapt in meeting the medical and technological challenges of the current crisis

The shock and sadness at Queen Elizabeth’s death was followed quickly by questions about the future of the Commonwealth – an institution to which she was, without doubt, deeply committed. But to tie their fates too closely together overlooks the fact that the modern Commonwealth is an open, autonomous network of nations working together to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

Amid rising nationalism across the globe, the Commonwealth is unique: a voluntary alliance of independent nations based on shared values such as peace, democracy and egalitarianism. Its strength lies in its diversity: its 56 member countries include some of the world’s largest, smallest, richest, and poorest – from economic powerhouses to small island states. It cuts across virtually all other international groupings and is one of the few international networks not based on geography, defence or economic status. And any country can join – as Gabon and Togo did this year – and have an equal say in Commonwealth policies and priorities, regardless of their size or wealth.

Yet the geographic and cultural diversity that give the Commonwealth its immense potential and relevance as a force for global good are also a product of its historical roots. Many, although not all, of its members are former British colonies, whose land and resources were seized or swindled from their legitimate owners. Yet these now independent nations have chosen to retain links to the Commonwealth. To imply that this is solely because of their regard for a member of British royalty is to disregard their commitment to international cooperation and to shared values.

Of course, the Commonwealth isn’t perfect. Critics point to its failure to enforce compliance with the values outlined in its charter, to which all member governments commit, such as democracy, the rule of law, good governance and human rights. Yet its flaws shouldn’t define its future: the best way of cementing these principles into reality is through countries working together, using the Commonwealth framework and ideals as the basis for a fairer and more peaceful world.

Commonwealth collaboration in higher education is one of the best examples of this in action. Its member countries are home to 2.5 billion people – including a third of the world’s young people. Shared education systems and the common use of English as a first or second language offer a valuable basis for international collaboration and the interchange of students and staff. They underpin the work of university networks such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).

With 500 member institutions across 50 countries, and governed by and for its members, the ACU’s network of universities is a meeting point for the wealth of knowledge, ideas and experience that exists within them. Among its core aims is to bring universities – and the people who study and work within them – together to share this expertise and work together on the issues that matter to them.

This work includes blended learning initiatives, co-created by university partners, to widen access to higher education in sub-Saharan Africa; collaborative networks that connect universities on the front line of climate change and allow them to share practical knowledge of building resilience on campuses and in their communities; and grants and scholarships that take students and researchers to different countries and institutions to seek solutions to global challenges, enriched by their own expertise and regional connections.

Importantly, universities are also a natural home for open debate and difficult conversations about how we can address the past – and shape the future – of the Commonwealth itself, to ensure it is an inclusive, relevant body in which the voices of all its citizens can be heard and heeded. It is no accident that universities have been at the forefront of protests over ties to the slave trade and movements to decolonise education. But, by working together, they have also produced solutions. The University of Glasgow’s restorative justice scheme and research partnership with the University of the West Indies is a historic example.

The strength – and the future – of the Commonwealth lies in its ability to have these discussions: to ask questions in an open and equal space and work together on solutions across borders and boundaries. This is what universities do best, and it is what the ACU will always support. It is not about ignoring the past but asking how we can use the connections and commonalities we’ve been left with to build a better future.

To this end, and in the words of her late Majesty, the Commonwealth gives us “a point of connection, cooperation and friendship” in a divided world. “It is a place,” she reminds us, “to come together.”

Joanna Newman is CEO and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

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Reader's comments (2)

Too many contradictions in this line of thought. University academics probably mostly reject the monarchy, imperial nostalgia, as well as the related little Brexit syndrome, all of which goes with nationalism. The dangers are obvious if you have a cursory look at the history of the last 200 years. The mass hysteria over QEII's death should provoke serious questioning over the continuing hold the state and right-wing elites, as well as state-centric organisations, over societies that claim to be interested in justice, equality and sustainability. Now would be the time to get rid of all of the 19th Century hang over, imperial dreams, and reform. Follow the scholarship. Things are not going that way though, and inevitably will lead to a major crunch. It's hard to see Commonwealth Heads of State doing much about any of this because they are implicated in the drift back into 19th Century nostalgia, along with many in the UN Security Council. Scholars should not rubber stamp these obviously dangerous strategies.
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