The new Magna Charta Universitatum – revitalising fundamental values in a changing world

As universities strive to realise human potential, preserve the planet and promote health and prosperity, the new Magna Charta Universitatum offers a fresh opportunity to adhere to fundamental principles in order to better face a new and challenging global context. As Patrick Deane, President of the Magna Charta Observatory, writes, university signatories from around the world are more than welcome - they are necessary as we shape a common future.

As I write this, less than three hours have passed since the new Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU 2020) received its first signature, in Bologna, from the hand of the outgoing Rector of the Alma Mater Studiorum, Professor Francesco Ubertini. Delayed in its launch by the Covid-19 pandemic, the MCU 2020 is not intended to replace the original Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU) which was signed, also in Bologna, in 1988. Instead, it is an extension of that document, a translation of its principles for the benefit and elevation of universities thirty-three years on, and one that recognises that the context within which such institutions operate is dramatically changed.

As in 1988, when over three hundred institutions signed, the launch of the MCU 2020 on 16 June was a celebration of the global academic community in its resolve to uphold and advance the principles, values and responsibilities that define a university: institutional autonomy and intellectual independence, the inseparability of teaching and research, the rejection of intolerance, and commitment to addressing the needs of the world. The MCU 2020 notes that these requirements “are as valid today as they were in 1988,” but goes on to note that they are “the necessary precondition for human advancement through enquiry, analysis, and sound action.” The role of the new document is to unpack that last observation, to identify what “sound action” is demanded of universities in today’s world, what responsibilities accrue to them in consequence of the rights and privileges they enjoy.

The Magna Charta Universitatum has now been signed by nearly one thousand institutions from almost 90 countries; and today, so soon after the launch, it is pleasing to note that more than 250 equally diverse universities have signed the MCU 2020, once again following the lead of the University of Bologna (UNIBO). While the original document most definitely took note of the “changing and increasingly international” nature of society, its framers almost certainly did not anticipate the degree of geographical and cultural diversity that might have been represented in the Piazza Maggiore of Bologna had we been able to gather there in person for the launch.

It is worth pondering that scenario, imagining the global academy hosted by UNIBO in its 933rd year, because of what it says about the still continuing and far-reaching influence of Europe over the way in which the mission of universities is understood worldwide. The paradox of the MCU 2020 is that despite its uncompromising embrace of diverse academic cultures and approaches, the document in no way repudiates, qualifies, or apologises for its Europeanness. By noting that the tenets of the earlier declaration continue to be valid, the MCU 2020 implicitly acknowledges that “a university is the trustee of the European humanist tradition.” But it is that culturally specific tradition which, by its emphasis on reason and our common humanity, paradoxically opens the door to the world and which has enabled universities on almost every continent to sign, find value in, and express their aspirations through, the Magna Charta Universitatum.

All of this is to say that although the Magna Charta Observatory (MCO) has in recent years occasionally held the anniversary conference outside of Europe and has expanded global representation on its Governing Council, that powerful, original connection to the European academy has in no way diminished. The Magna Charta Universitatum was the product of a very intensive period of academic community-building on the part of the Conférence permanente des Recteurs, Présidents et Vice-Chanceliers des Universités européennes (CRE) during the mid- to late 1980s. The Magna Charta Observatory was then founded by the CRE, in partnership with the University of Bologna, in 2001—the same year in which the CRE combined with the Confederation of European Union Rectors’ Conferences to create the European University Association (EUA)—and adherence to the principles of the Magna Charta Universitatum 1988 has been a condition of membership in the EUA since then. This twentieth anniversary year for the EUA is thus equally significant for the MCO—an occasion to take note of, and to celebrate, the bond between the two organisations and their two decades of collaboration in support of a healthy and vibrant academy.

As the number of signatories has grown and their institutional and geographical diversity has increased, however, the function of the Observatory has become less focused on monitoring for compliance, and more on supporting universities in their efforts to live the values of the MCU. There are minimum conditions that must be met before an institution can be approved to sign, of course, and these are clearly laid out in the Admissions Policy: “Applicants must provide details of their policies and practices relating to their autonomy, academic freedom in research, teaching and learning, and demonstrating how they ensure integrity in their operations . . . .” While both the 1988 document and the MCU 2020 recognise implicitly that the national, cultural and political contexts within which universities operate may constrain those policies and practices to some degree, the MCU 2020 is more obviously aspirational than prescriptive or summative in its intention.

One consequence of that should be the enlistment of many more signatories from an increasingly heterogeneous academic world, all committed—despite the challenges and constraints within which fortune has decreed they must work—to preserving institutional autonomy, academic freedom and overall integrity in their operations. Why is it important that the MCO should foster rather than merely judge compliance with those values? The answer is given in the final paragraphs of the MCU 2020, which make clear why all institutions with an honest commitment must be made welcome, why it is critically important to “engage with diverse voices and perspectives.” The reason is quite simply the magnitude of universities’ mission: “to realise human potential everywhere,” to preserve the planet, and to promote “health, prosperity, and enlightenment around the world.”

Institutions of all types and from all parts of the world are not merely welcome but necessary, next time we gather in Bologna.


This article was written on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the European University Association.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Patrick Deane

Patrick Deane is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Canada, and President of the Governing Council of the Magna Charta Observatory, Bologna.


Comfortable read mode Normal mode X