Take Aways from Barcelona (GUNI 2013): Engage

First published on University of Manitoba website, June 2013

In May, I was in Barcelona for the 6th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education themed “Let’s build transformative knowledge to drive social change” organised by the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi). Despite news of gloom and economic woes in Europe (particularly Southern Europe), my overall experience of the city is quite positive. And why not? With such historic and artistic surroundings – and of course tapas – one cannot help but appreciate life there.

This was my first time participating in a GUNI Conference. Thanks to an Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF)initiative on university social responsibility (USR), I came across a GUNI 2008 report on new challenges and emerging roles for higher education in human and social development.

I was not disappointed. At the Conference, plenary sessions and parallel working groups examined ‘engagement’ as a key feature in the evolution of higher education – some would say the universities’ third mission (teaching and learning being the other two). In his presentation, Dr. Dzulkifli Razak, President of International Association of Universities (IAU) and Vice-Chancellor of Albukhary University talked about how his university’s community engagement weighs equally important as academic performance and is given due recognition in the assessment of staff and students instead of becoming an adjunct or subsidiary activity.


Helen Balderama with the GUNI 2013 team


Despite the diversity of terminologies currently being used in the field to refer to ‘engagement’ – i.e. USR, community engagement, outreach, service learning and or social impact – the last specifically relevant for publicly funded university research activities and initiatives, an increasing number of higher education institutions are recognizing community ‘engagement’ as a necessary aspect of a holistic university experience. Non-converts could perhaps get inspiration from Halliki Voolma, Estonian PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, who was asked at the close of the Conference to share her take aways. She said that the support service (on domestic violence research and advocacy) she started her research with has enriched not only her academic studies but also her life and that she hopes to continue involvement in the same type of work for the rest of her life. Halliki goes on to recommend that such activities be presented as a clear and explicit option for students and that universities support them in the process.  As captured in the Global Communique: “education should help to create problem awareness and promote systemic thinking, thus empowering people to participate…”

Robert Hollister, Executive Director of Talloires Network, called for “practical visionaries” if we are to tackle the complex challenges of our times. Many of these challenges lie far beyond the capacity of an individual institution to tackle and, therefore, necessitate alliances and partnerships, engagements. More and more, individuals who have the vision (ideas), competences and commitment are needed to get things done and forge those alliances.



Engagement is as valid and alive at University of Manitoba (UM). No other Canadian university is as embedded in the economic, social and cultural fabric of its home province as UM and for over 135 years, it has been shaping leaders, enhancing the community and conducting world-class research. In its Strategic Planning Framework, the university articulates – “We (UM) do not believe we should work in isolation, but that we should explore opportunities for cooperation and collaboration both within the university and beyond it – with our partners in the community, in government and in other post-secondary institutions. » Furthermore, community engagement is both a necessity and a strategic response to the province’s demographic developments.

The university is in the process of articulating its international engagement priorities. For the outcomes of this process to be meaningful, relevant and ‘implementable’, it has to be informed by the needs and interests of various stakeholders – from its immediate constituencies (faculty, administrators, managers, staff and students) to its  alumni, the government, the business sector and the Manitoban community in general.  At the same time, UM has to find its place in the international landscape and ask strategic questions such as which brand of internationalization does it want to be known for? What does it choose to do amidst a whole gamut of international activities and initiatives? Who are the strategic partners that will help achieve its international priorities and ambitions?

I would dare say international engagement is no longer a choice but a strategic necessity for any university. But each institution is entitled to choose its own path(s) of engagement, remaining true to its mission and raison d’etre, anchored in the present realities, able to seize on opportunities and tackle challenges out there in a global scale. To carefully find its place in this globalized higher education landscape, a university has to ‘engage’.

More information about the GUNI 2013 Conference and Global Communique is available at GUNi website.

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