Education should lead and orient us to prepare adequate answers and also to act as promoters of a social transformation firmly centred on human development.
When some scientists predict the end of classical university, setting education as an indisputable strategic priority during the irreversible process of globalisation must be an urgent, imperative task. A universal debate for a common agenda is needed for all education systems, irrespective of their geographical and cultural contexts.
At the United Nations recently, 192 countries emphasised by consensus the vital role of education in the achievement of poverty eradication and other major development goals. In his address to the organisation, Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of Unesco, restated the axiom that access to knowledge and the ability to use it effectively are critical determinants of economic growth, sustainable development and social and political participation.
Universities, as independent and credible voices of society, have a fundamental role to play, but the challenges they face are immensely complex, while relevant academic reforms are still slow and insufficiently imaginative.
Sensitive to this phenomenon, the G-8 (USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia) at their summit in St. Petersburg this year affirmed that economic and social prosperity in the 21st century depend on the ability of nations to educate all members of their societies to enable them to thrive in a rapidly changing world. The first sentence of the G-8 2006 Summit document on this topic is memorable: ''Education is at the heart of human progress.''
Why? It enriches cultures, creates mutual understanding globally, underpins democratic societies and builds respect for the rule of law. Knowledge-based economies require innovative education systems and reliable, transparent, and non-discriminatory legal, regulatory, and policy frameworks to foster pro-competitive and predictable policies, providing incentives that favour innovation.
The document contains a final invitation to maximise the human and social capital of all people through policies that recognise diversity in the educational sector and in the workplace, advance innovation and stimulate creativity.
In a follow-up to the G-8 Summit, Unesco and the Italian government will organise in 2007 the World Forum on Education, Innovation and Research.
Thailand, with its 78 public and over 50 private universities, was in 2006 the venue of many significant international manifestations dedicated to education as an effective tool for progress and prosperity. Mention will be made below only of international meetings over the last six months attended by the writer.
The Bangkok World University Presidents Summit, attended by nearly 1,600 participants from 87 countries, proved to be an exceptional platform for discussing many topical issues Beyond the professional reflections on diversity and harmonisation, the Bangkok Summit also reaffirmed during its proceedings that our common fundamental values, including freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for all human rights, respect for nature and shared responsibility, are essential to international relations and crucial for the future of higher education.
During the current turbulent times, it was rewarding to hear again and again the prophetic words from the Unesco Constitution - since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. Peace must be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.
Universities are considered to be the last bastion of generally accepted civilising values. They can bring hope to a hopeless world. Education is expected to develop within a culture of peace and learning that is holistic, founded on values that are both national and universal.