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Universities are institutions that date back to the Middle Ages. The only reason they have survived and remained relevant since is that they have been able to reinvent themselves and adapt to the circumstances of each era.

The 21stcentury requires universities to get closer to society and strengthen their relations with different social groups. There is no longer a place in today’s world for ivory towers unaware of the demands that emanate from around them.

Obviously, universities alone will not be able to eliminate Brazil’s or Latin America’s profound social, economic, regional and ethnic inequalities. But they can – and must – play an important role in searching for solutions to these and other problems, acting as transforming agents of the economic and social system.

It is with that in mind that about 600 higher education leaders from around the world, including approximately 100 from Brazil, gathered in Spain to share ideas and experiences on how universities can prepare themselves to respond with creativity and dynamism to the current demands of society.

They participated in the 4thInternational Universia Rectors Meeting, an important event to be held at the historic University of Salamanca – a true survivor of the passing of time that celebrates this year the 800thanniversary of foundation – under the theme “University, Society and Future”.

The meeting focused on three main topics: training and learning in a digital world; researching at university: a paradigm under review?; and contribution to social and territorial development, which I coordinated.

This third topic dealt with issues such as the challenge of training students to work in a changing labor market. How can universities do this knowing that many of the jobs of the future have not yet been created? The answer certainly involves educating ethical citizens and equipping them to keep pace with the rapid changes of an increasingly connected and globalized world.

Other points of discussion were ways to promote entrepreneurship in higher education and how universities can reflect strategically considering the sustainable development goals. These discussions must necessarily cover aspects related to access, permanence, equity, diversity, excellence, internationalization and innovation.

In order for universities to effectively contribute to social and regional development, it is crucial that they seek new ideas and good practices, and be open, at the same time, to reviewing and changing their models according to the needs of society. 

The social dimension has to be incorporated transversally into the three core missions of universities: teaching, research and knowledge dissemination. Universities need to redouble their communication efforts to show society the invaluable contributions they make to it.

It is worrying to see a new generation of extremely well-trained professors and researchers not being able to find good jobs or having difficulty in pursuing an academic career. As well as it is unacceptable to follow the constant cuts in funding for scientific research and graduate training.

There are many examples of success in Latin America’s higher education system, in spite of its old-fashioned governance model, bureaucracy, low wages, stressful environment and uncertain future. There are examples of very good research universities and important research facilities (e.g.; the Synchrotron Light Source Laboratory in Brazil, the Bariloche Atomic Research Centre in Argentina, etc.) that are competitive at a global level. The main public universities have been responsible for the education of the region´s leaders and a new generation of well-trained workforce can make a difference in the region. Some countries have developed complex assessment systems and good graduate training. 

In this sense, universities must immerse themselves in a deep transformation, effectively planning the expansion of opportunities, conducting quality assessment, broadening the impact of their research, rethinking the development of curricula, adequately defining the profile of their graduates, introducing modern teaching tools, and enabling more international student exchange.

The world is undergoing huge transformations and universities must keep pace with these changes, or they will become obsolete.