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The UK’s universities are increasingly places of diversity as well as learning. Richard Brown FRSA argues that this makes them uniquely placed to increase tolerance in an interconnected world

In theory we live in a world which has never been more flat and interconnected. Where we can travel easily to experience different cultures, access virtually all the knowledge that we are likely to need and hence are able to understand and appreciate a wide range of views. But in reality our world remains divided between cultures and religions where intolerance and fundamentalism seem as strong as ever.

The RSA is rightly emphasising the importance of building relationships based on trust and a shared sense of ethical values that transcend religions and cultures. This is central to its core theme of 21st century enlightenment. Through its projects in the UK, the Society places an emphasis on building the social capital and networking capabilities that are crucial to the success of nations and people in the 21st century. But can it learn not just from further afield but from the past?

As we look to the future of UK, one of the most diverse countries in the world, maybe we can learn something from Toledo and other centres of learning in early medieval Europe on how to create spaces where intolerance can be set aside in the service of a greater cause that transcends narrow sectoral interests.

At almost the same time as St Bernard of Clairvaux was preaching the second crusade on the steps of Vezelay cathedral in 1147, his more academic colleague Peter the Venerable, the Abbott of Cluny, travelled to Toledo to commission a Latin translation of the Quran so he could attempt to convince Muslims through reason of the errors of their ways. In Toledo he would have found a great network of Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars working in multicultural teams to transcribe and develop the thinking from earlier ages, including from Greeks such as Aristotle, which had been largely lost in the West.

Through enquiry and analysis these teams in many ways laid the foundations for our own empirical approach to learning. Since the scholars from all three religions were 'children of the book of Abraham' they saw no reason why they should not work together to advance knowledge in a spirit of mutual respect and trust. Our modern world can learn much from this multicultural approach.

Maybe the generation of the space needed for mutual exploration and understanding can most easily be achieved in our modern great centres of learning: our universities. They are increasingly multicultural. Over 15 percent of the students now studying in UK universities, for example, come from outside the EU. This percentage will increase as our universities strive for more full fee-paying students.

If we just think of these students as simply sources of revenue then we do them a disservice and waste the potential that they offer to our home students and indeed the wider communities where our universities reside. International students can help raise the global awareness of all whom they encounter. Through mixed teams addressing global issues, they can bring different views and assumptions to bear. This can help us all better appreciate and understand cultural differences. Such an approach could also help generate the fresh and innovative methods and insights that have to underpin our future. Innovation comes from different people with different ideas sparking off each other.

The Government must appreciate the value that international students (including research post-graduates) offer to our society as well as economy. If our graduates are to be more globally aware citizens and take their place in our increasingly interconnected organisations in the public, private or not-for-profit sectors, then we must value and actively promote cultural interactions.

But just getting diverse peoples together will not be enough: they should also share a set of values that can contribute to the development of more tolerant and understanding societies. To some extent our universities and other great centres of learning have always implicitly enshrined such a set of values.

Freedom of expression, freedom to research and pursue ideas wherever they may lead, taking care in establishing the 'truth', respect for the views of others and striving to do no harm have, I suggest, all underpinned universities for most of their history (with a few regrettable exceptions). University leaders need to make these values more explicit and then defend them. They could also be developed further.

There is a great opportunity to imbue the increasing number of young people who engage with universities wherever they may be with a sense of a global community. Maybe it is time for the RSA to work with others to articulate such a set of shared values. Indeed as the RSA develops its work on social capital, maybe it will find that such shared values have a wider relevance outside of academia in building a more tolerant and truly interconnected world.

Richard Brown was until recently the Chief Executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) a leadership network embracing Vice-Chancellors and senior businesspeople. His recently published book Tolerance: learning from Medieval Spain is available at £5 to RSA Fellows and can be ordered by email.


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