Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From Dictatorship to Democracy: the Implications for Higher Education

A summary of a speech in Tripoli, Libya, 9 May 2012

Sir Michael Barber

Congratulations to everyone in Libya for the remarkable changes since a year ago and especially to those who have worked so hard since the new Libya was formed in November to get the university system functioning again in just a few months. I sense in every conversation here in Tripoli the excitement and optimism about creating a new vision of Libya might become. It is very inspiring.

I want to refer to seven characteristics of state and society and how they differ between dictatorship and democracy. After that I will look at the implications of this transition for universities and higher education.

I recognise that the real expertise on this subject is not here on the platform but among you...I may have read about these things but you are living it every day and I’m happy to debate or answer questions on any aspect of what I say this evening.

Seven Characteristics
  1. Sovereignty – Under a dictatorship government is established by force and sustained by force. The military answers to the dictator. Under democracy government is established by election and the military works for the people.  No-one has ever bettered Lincoln’s definition in the Gettysburg address; democracy requires government of the people, for the people, by the people.
  2. Power – Elections are a necessary aspect of democracy but not remotely sufficient. Under dictatorship power comes from a single source, the dictator. Under democracy, power has diverse sources; judiciary, executive and legislature; national, regional and local etc. And beyond these formal aspects of a constitution, also civil society. “There is no safe depository of power but the people themselves’, said Thomas Jefferson.
  3. Civil Service – Under dictatorship the civil service works for the dictator; under democracy it works for the nation. Of course it should implement the programme of an elected government but it should also have the confidence to present politicians with alternatives, to debate the options with them and to advise them what is and is not within the law. It was sensible in Libya unlike in Iraq, to keep the civil service in place when the dictator fell but this will need a culture change, a new formally established set of values by which civil servants operate.
  4. Law - Under a dictatorship law is arbitrary and is exercised in the interests of the few, the cronies of the dictator. Under democracy, the law applies to everyone and is exercised in the interests of the society as a whole. The rule of law requires judges who are independent of government and not open to corruption.
  5. Business – Under dictatorship business is fundamentally corrupt and the way to success is an inside track with the dictator and his allies; as a result it tends to be monopolistic. Under democracy, there is a level playing field, business is pluralistic, starting new businesses is possible and indeed incentivised and monopolies are broken up or regulated.
  6. Overall – Dictatorship is a closed system, Democracy is open; in the terms of the excellent recent book, Why Nations Fail, Dictatorship is extractive and exploitative, benefitting the few at the expense of the many. Democracy is inclusive and enabling, benefitting the many not the few.
  7. Psychology – the final characteristic is harder to talk about. It’s the barriers to progress inside people’s heads. As Bob Marley says, None but ourselves can free our minds. Under dictatorship, people wait to be told what to do. For some it is even comfortable because it provides the perfect excuse for inaction, after all there is always someone else to blame. Under Democracy, the freedom is welcome of course but the sense of taking personal responsibility is a challenge too. Suddenly its up to you. Success in the future, including in Higher Education, will depend not on waiting for government all the time but on the creativity and innovation of people. Thus Libya will need culture change and mindset change as well as constitutional change.

Implications for Higher Education

Education in the future, needs to provide people with knowledge, the ability to think in a variety of ways and the capacity to influence others which I call leadership. It also needs to provide an ethical perspective on the 21st century consistent with humanity thriving in future.  Higher education has an immense contribution to make encouraging the acquisition of knowledge, debate based on sometimes conflicting evidence, the flow of ideas, the ability to experiment, the capacity to think and a range of opportunities to lead in academic and many other fields such as sport, drama, debating etc.

To be successful in the new Libya, as elsewhere, higher education will need to adhere to some strict principles – entry on merit, progression on merit, graduation on merit; academic appointments on merit; governance that ensures academic freedom; academics who have international peer networks in their field of study; funding from government that is indirect and doesn’t allow the government of the day to influence what people say and think. Financial support for poorer students should be provided so that merit, not ability to pay is the principle.

Universities in Libya will need partnerships with business and with universities abroad. They will need not just to teach undergraduate and graduate students, not just to undertake academic research but also contribute to the new economy. There is a lot of evidence now that a combination of good universities, great cities and clusters of businesses in particular fields can become a virtuous circle driving growth and innovation. Everyone has heard of Silicon Valley; but look closer at Toulouse in France – just across the Mediterranean – or Manchester in England where the same combination is proving transformative.

Let me give some examples of universities around the world that are inventing the future.

Take Toulouse just mentioned – using recent government reforms the university has taken control of its own destiny, by building relationships with the Aerospace industry (Toulouse is home to Airbus) and the beautiful city and surroundings.

Take the Higher School of Economics in Moscow where I am a Visiting Professor. Founded only in the 1990s, has an international advisory panel chaired by Nobel Prize winner Eric Maskin offering thoughts on how the HSE can join the world’s top 200 universities; it has visiting faculty from abroad (like me) bringing not just knowledge and expertise but also innovation in teaching. It has a partnership with the London School of Economics under which bright students can get joint degrees. The student benefits by getting a degree with high global credibility; HSE benefits by the growing academic collaboration at faculty level opening up access to publication in high prestige international journals; and LSE benefits because the HSE students are consistently among their best.

Take the Lahore University of Management Sciences, founded only about 25 years ago as a business school but now rapidly becoming a global leader with Schools of Science and Social Science too. Even in the troubled context of Pakistan it has insisted strictly on access on merit, it has been able to attract international faculty including bringing back to Pakistan some of the diaspora who had become academic leaders in the US and elsewhere.

Take Liverpool University in England, which in partnership with Laureate the US-based for-profit provider of HE, is becoming a global leader in online higher education.

Take Cambridge in England, building innovation and start-up thinking and opportunities into the way its Judge Business School functions through academic leaders like Jaideep Prabhu.

I don’t advocate any one of these models for HE in Libya. I don’t yet know enough to suggest a way forward. I mention the examples to show the range of possibilities available to Libyan universities in the emerging, democratic context of the new Libya, inshallah one that adheres to the seven principles above.  In the 21st century Higher Education is more important and central than ever to the development of a successful society and economy. I look forward to seeing you seize the opportunities now opening up that you have created and to debating with you now how best you might be able to do that.

Thank you and good luck!

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