By Jane Marshall 18 July 2019
At the first summit of the U7+ Alliance, an international alliance of leading universities from the Group of Seven (G7) countries and beyond, presidents of 47 institutions from 18 countries, representing more than two million students worldwide, adopted six principles to tackle five major global challenges.
Meeting in Paris, they signed a Declaration committing to take concrete action related to themes of the G7 summit that will take place in Biarritz at the end of August under the 2019 French presidency.
The U7+ summit on 9 and 10 July was attended by university presidents from the G7 advanced economy countries of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. They were joined by leaders from higher education institutions in Argentina, Australia, Ghana, India, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Singapore, South Africa and South Korea.*
They adopted six principles to which a total of 245 individual actions are connected, in line with the G7 summit agenda. Universities will undertake specific actions within their own institutions, and several ‘champion’ institutions will oversee planning, coordination and monitoring of the participating working groups.
The six principles, which have actions embedded, include:
- Pursue joint action through the U7+, including meeting each year in the context of the G7 process, “so that our actions can weigh in the discussions and contribute to making positive change a reality”.
- Recognise universities’ distinctive responsibility to train and nurture responsible and active citizens who will contribute to society, from the local to the global level.
- Recognise that “our universities have a major role to play in addressing the environmental issues and challenges to sustainability such as climate change, biodiversity and energy transition. This should include leading by example on our own campuses.”
- Recognise that universities have a distinctive and leading role to play regarding equality and inclusiveness in the world, and in combating polarisation in society.
- To engage with stakeholders and solve complex issues of global relevance universities must promote interdisciplinary research and learning, in particular bridging in research and teaching between social sciences, humanities, the life sciences and STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
- Recognise that the U7+ “has the power to serve as a lab to consolidate best practices that can be shared both within our network and more broadly with universities and similar institutions worldwide for inspiration”.
The five global challenges the U7+ will focus on are: universities’ key role in a global world; climate change and cleaner energy; inequality and polarised societies; technological transformations; and community engagement and impact.
Patronage of President Macron
Under the patronage of French President Emmanuel Macron, the newly formed U7+ is an initiative of 13 French higher education institutions.
They recognised that the themes of the forthcoming G7 summit were relevant to their university role and raison d’être.
“Universities have always been and remain global actors, and we act upon issues that relate to the G7 agenda,” said Vanessa Scherrer, vice-president for international affairs at Sciences Po, one of the founding institutions and current chair of U7+.
“G7 started opening to civil society a few years ago – there are now engagement groups for women, for youth, academies of science, business, work and so on.
“In that context, the U7+ is an alliance of world universities taking action in the area of the G7, and in a special way: rather than making recommendations to the heads of state of the G7, we will present our commitments to action, as a way of trying to make a change and lead by example. This is the DNA of U7+.”
With the G7 opening to civil society, new ideas and countries beyond the G7, and the fact that there were no engagement groups or ministerial meetings related to higher education and research, “the idea [for an alliance of universities] was discussed between the French founding universities and we realised it would be important for the world,” said Scherrer.
The university alliance was created “in a very short time”, she said. “The first meeting of the French steering committee was in April, and we decided collectively on which international colleagues to invite – five universities from each of the G7 countries.”
The G7 universities then proposed institutions in other countries* to join their alliance. “The response was high from the outset, so we quickly realised our intuition was right,” said Scherrer.
The organisers had only a few weeks to negotiate and set up the complex international arrangements to establish the alliance in time for G7 preparatory meetings in June, before the first U7+ summit in July.
With the G7’s open approach to other countries under the French presidency, what was originally simply the ‘U7’ Alliance of world universities added ‘Plus’ to its title to become U7+, in recognition that universities from outside the group have joined.
U7+ leaders must now present their commitments to their faculty, students and staff, who have “a decisive role to play in these actions”, said Scherrer.
She stressed the importance of interdisciplinarity in U7+ institutions, “especially topics related to new technology and its impact. It is important that STEM students are trained in the social sciences.”
For the future, after France hands on the G7 presidency to the United States at the end of 2019, Scherrer says: “At that point, we can say that the 47 presidents have committed U7+ to meet next year in the context of the G7 summit, whatever happens. We will remain a very flexible organisation, but universities from France, the US and UK, successive chairs of the G7, will work together.
“We are committed to meeting once a year, probably in a G7 country. We shall hold a mid-term meeting, and keep contact among us to monitor actions, and stay in touch with sherpas [the representatives of heads of state or government who prepare for the summits] to prepare for the next G7 summit.”
Monitoring is a high priority, and the ‘champion’ institutions will work together to harmonise the action.
“For example, on climate change,” said Scherrer, “all the champions have agreed to make systems comparable, with harmonised indicators, measurements, deadlines, deals and platforms.”
U7+ could take on different commitments in future, she said. The present ones “arose as key fields in which we are already global actors, and connected to the agenda of the G7 in France this year, but we agreed it could change next year, like the G7 which has a new focus each year”.
* Institutions that attended the U7+ summit are listed at the end of the Declaration.