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The preservation and development of culture is part of the mission of universities. This article, from the President of HRK, explores how this mission widens the knowledge triangle of education, research and innovation to a knowledge square – with universities at the centre.

On 23 June 2016, the result of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom shocked the European public. A wave of populism and nationalism seemed to roll across the societies of the EU member states. On 19 December 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. The results of the looming presidential elections in France in April 2017 were impossible to predict. In March 2017, on the eve of the governmental celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Rome treaty creating the European Economic Community, the European identity crisis and the intellectual paralysis of the political elite of the EU had reached a veritable climax.

It was in this daunting political atmosphere that the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) adopted a resolution in its General Assembly on November 2016, calling for a “European Community of Education, Research and Innovation” as a new and inspiring political project of the EU. The resolution stressed the role of universities in this knowledge triangle and in the development of culture.

In March 2017, in a joint article simultaneously published in the French and German press, the then presidents of the French and German Rectors’ Conferences addressed the Rome celebrations. They emphasised the importance of universities in the knowledge triangle and their role in the preservation and creation of culture as a basis for a common European identity. They described universities as part of the glue that made and still make the patchwork of European identities and histories stick together in the European Union. As pars pro toto, they praised the Erasmus+ Programme, which has allowed hundreds of thousands of European students to get to know other European cultures and viewpoints.

In the meantime, the debate amongst European universities on the mission of universities moved forward. The recently published EUA vision paper “Universities without walls” documents this in an impressive and convincing manner. It includes culture as the fourth element of a knowledge square that describes the four missions of universities. The importance of this shared vision cannot be underestimated. In 2006, the first strategy paper of the European Commission on “modernising universities” appealed to universities to become “leaders in their own renaissance” (p. 4). Now universities demonstrate that they themselves want to have a decisive voice in defining their missions in the complex interplay of research, education, innovation and culture.

Although the value of culture plays an enormous role in many political anniversary speeches, particularly in times of crisis, the role of universities in preserving and driving cultural developments is not sufficiently understood or acknowledged in European politics. Let us for a moment imagine that universities would not exist: Who would study the achievements and failures of our ancestors and who would try to make history comprehensible for today’s generation? Human and social sciences play an enormously important role in this. Who would educate the interpreters who help us communicate in a globalised world? Who would educate the linguists who, in cooperation with experts in computer science, help to develop the first translation software that will make technical and human communication much easier in the future?

Learning from history in a direct sense is surely impossible. Yet, leaving the wealth of human experiences without attention and study is a recipe for future failure and disaster. Human and social sciences help to make us understand human existence and behaviour. This capability does not lose importance in times of new leading scientific disciplines such as bioengineering or artificial intelligence.

Thus, universities contribute to the preservation and development of culture. They are themselves places of culture that offer platforms for exchange of ideas, identities, concepts and role models. Universities drive people to participate in this exchange – an exchange that is often challenging for the pre-existing mindsets of students, professors or citizens. The current debates on scientific freedom in Europe and the world, on “cancel culture” and “ideologies fostering terrorism” just show the spectrum of debate in universities. This culture must be preserved and not be pushed aside – neither by interested societal and party groupings, nor by misguided governmental actions. The freedom of speech and the freedom to express oneself in written form is now threatened in the EU, in Europe and the rest of the world, as it has been in other historical periods. Universities are at their best when they allow the flow of ideas to be expressed freely and debated in a peaceful manner. This is a service they offer to society and culture and it has made them an enormously successful institution over the course of centuries.


Peter-André Alt
German Rectorsʼ Conference (HRK)

Peter-André Alt has served as President of the German Rectorsʼ Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz/HRK) since August 2018. On 27 April 2021, he was re-elected for a second term until the end of July 2024. He has been the President of Freie Universität Berlin for two terms (2010-2018) and has served in several international advisory boards and committees.

Copyright: HRK/David Ausserhofer

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