Higher Education can do more to transform conflict and build peace

Sunday - January 24, 2021

This is an exempt from an article published in University World News in order to give it more attention, focus and as a celebration of Worldwide Education Day, 24th January 2021.

Conflict and violence take many forms in the world today. There has been a sharp upturn in recent years. As of 2019, war and conflict had uprooted 79.5 million men, women and children around the world, representing the highest number in recorded history, with an estimated two billion people currently living in conflict-affected and fragile states.

Conflict and fragility are also the main factors preventing the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in 82% of affected countries.

According to the World Bank, “the resurgence of violent conflict in recent years has caused immense human suffering, at enormous social and economic cost. Violent conflicts today have become complex and protracted, involving more non-state groups and regional and international actors, often linked to global challenges from climate change to transnational organised crime.”

Global reports have also clearly established links between education, conflict and peace. Higher education is not exempt. While universities are critical actors in the promotion of peace and conflict studies and often contribute to peace dialogues, universities can also be enablers of social inequalities, ethnic divisions and a culture of violence. So what role can or should universities play in anticipating and responding to these challenges?

Universities’ role in peacebuilding

Higher education institutions should be reflecting on how they can contribute proactively to the reduction of inequalities, frustration, radicalisation and violence in society, beginning with how they can better tailor the education and training they provide to contribute to individual and societal resilience, conflict transformation, sustainable development and socially just peace.

Educational leaders should ask themselves and their colleagues: “What more can our institution do to demonstrate leadership in the field of peacebuilding and conflict transformation at home and abroad?”

First, more can be done in terms of integrating peacebuilding values and aims into education policies and curricula across disciplines.

Higher education institutions still tend to regard peace and conflict studies as a niche topic within the social and political sciences. Yet the realities of global conflict and fragility now demonstrate without any doubt that all disciplines, industries and levels of education play a part in conflict, either directly or indirectly, and all have a role to play in its mitigation and prevention.

Second, more can also be done to align governance of educational institutions with the values and vision of a peaceful, inclusive and just society. Change requires leadership, supported by policies emerging from inclusive consultations and shared ownership.

Thirdly, creating partnerships between educational institutions and their surrounding communities can further achieve peacebuilding gains by undertaking diverse forms of transformative practice oriented towards the common good.

Nothing, however, can be achieved without educational leaders and professionals who are willing to adopt a conflict-sensitive analytical lens and prioritise a social impact-oriented peacebuilding approach when deciding upon institutional and discipline-specific aims and strategies.

COVID-19 and (online) higher education for peace

Degrees in conflict and peace studies are currently available at universities around the world, mostly in North America and northern Europe, but increasingly on other continents as well.

Universities at the forefront of peacebuilding are not only formalising peace studies programmes and research agendas, but also adopting service-learning community partnerships in addition to extending diversity policies to reduce discrimination and exclusion from educational opportunities.

However, tertiary education remains an elite activity, ever more so now that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing conflicts and inequalities. Open access provision of online courses by major universities can help to universalise educational access, particularly important for economically marginalised individuals and organisations that live and work on the frontlines of conflict.

While some universities have been leading the way in online learning for more than a decade, the COVID-19 global pandemic has pushed teaching and training online in unprecedented ways.

Some peacebuilding practice organisations were initially worried that the forced shift to online training formats would compromise the quality of transformative trust-building exercises that face-to-face non-formal education encounters can foster. However, experiences this past year have proven otherwise.

Universities that are now forced to move a greater share of teaching online have a similar opportunity to reduce the peacebuilding access gap by putting courses and workshops related to this field online in unrestricted formats. The challenge remains for communities that have limited or poor-quality access to the internet and internet-based devices.

Educating leaders of peacebuilding

Leadership is needed to strengthen the peacebuilding role of higher education. Research demonstrates that, if peacebuilding is not integrated explicitly into an institution’s mandate, efforts by individual champions will not likely be coherent or sustained and therefore their impact will be significantly limited.

For this reason, international cooperation agencies like GIZ are leading institutional capacity-building in this area and recognise universities’ key role in peacebuilding, but more engagement is needed.

Finally, universities are uniquely positioned to exploit and devise new ICT applications for peacebuilding research, teaching and practice. From mobile tracking of displaced populations and provision of humanitarian supplies, to monitoring of conflict narratives and radicalisation in cyberspace, to promoting access to transformative online opportunities for learning and dialogue, higher education experts should be looking for ways to make greater use of ICT for peacebuilding.

With social unrest and conflict spreading around the world like wildfire, the need for greater attention to the social function of education in general and of higher education in particular is urgent.

Dr Sara Clarke-Habibi has worked in the field of peacebuilding through education for 20 years. She earned her PhD in education from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.