UWC Forum London 2013

Christopher Saltmarsh, (UWCAC, England '12-'14)

On Tuesday the 8th of October, a coach full of Atlantic College students travelled down to London, and into the ‘square mile’, to attend the second annual UWC Forum, organised by a group of London based UWC alumni.

We were warmly welcomed to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) by the many UWC associated individuals working there and given an outline of what they do, why they do it and told that their organisation is not to dissimilar to UWC as a movement. The EBRD has a mission to invest in mostly private sector projects, with the aim to help developing countries transition into free-market economies. They also have a focus on trying to make their projects sustainable and ‘environmentally friendly’, or certainly as much as is possible within the free-market economic model. But it was at this point that I began to question whether their glorification of the free market (and subtle demonization of communism) made them as similar to UWC as they liked to say: or what, actually UWC’s opinion really is?

Regardless, those welcoming us were perfectly hospitable given their importance within their organisation and were more than willing to chat with (and have their economic ideologies scrutinised by) AC students.

The forum itself followed our welcome as we took our seats in the bank’s auditorium with the first main event being a conversation with Peter Sands, CEO of Standard Chartered bank and UWC Pearson alumni. I was impressed by Peter’s lasting appreciation for his UWC experience and what he got out of his time at Pearson. I did, though, sense a conflict between his apparent connection to the UWC mission and his work as a banker and readiness to justify his role in the Browne Review (which led to the increase in the cap on university tuition fees in the UK) with poor and contradictory reasoning. Deeper questions about whether or not the free-market’s glorification and constant pursuit of growth is fundamentally unsustainable in a planet of finite resources were skirted around; but what would you expect?

Listening to Peter and others made me consider the criticism sometimes levelled at UWC, that students from around the world, but with similar (most likely liberal) views, are brought together with the possibility that we just stay with those who agree with us, without really challenging our ideas or doing much to educate those with ideas not so in line with the movement’s. However, I realised that although UWC may be predominately made up of liberals who care deeply about peace, community service and sustainability, there are a plethora of ideas and perspectives on how these common goals can be achieved. Although one could say that certain ideas, like that of a free-market economy, seem to contradict the mission of UWC, it is clear that UWC, as a movement, has great ability in bringing together different ideologies and cultural outlooks, with the hope that a common way forward can be forged.

The panel discussions, one on migration and one on education, had great potential and would have been better in their own right (if not at a UWC forum), but seemed to epitomise the room’s general disconnect from the UWC mission.

The education panel, especially, could have looked more specifically at UWC as a model for education rather than the vague ‘traditional educational models’ which lent itself to being an unconstructive regurgitation of debates around education in the UK, with few concrete problems established and fewer real solutions suggested. I am still unsure whether most, if any, of the panellists really knew what UWC or the IB was, as the debate became very UK centric. At no point was community service or experiential education mentioned as possible ways to address the vague problems being presented.

I regret that this panel didn’t consist of more people aware of and active in UWC and have topic that would allow for constructive debate around UWC’s relevance, affordability and appropriateness to wider society. As a so-called ‘radical educational movement’, is it not out job to pioneer these radical methods of education with the hope that they permeate their way into wider education systems? One member of the audience made the valid point that maybe the movement’s goal should be to make ourselves irrelevant by spreading our methods of education outside the 12 (soon to be 25) colleges that we govern to the extent that we’re no longer in a niche, but part of a wider culture of such education.

This kind of forum would be an excellent opportunity for members of the UWC community to discuss ideas and provide ourselves with a direction because these questions about our relevance, affordability and expansion are ones that we certainly need to be asking ourselves.

To close the forum, a small group of Middle Eastern Atlantic College students sat on stage to have a ‘conversation’ about their experiences. It wasn’t so much a conversation as it was an opportunity to parade the movement’s poster children and to extract from them superficial answers to superficial questions followed by a story of their lives back home. This obviously scripted affair did no justice to either the students on the stage, those in the audience or back to the college. As a group of passionate, opinionated young people, who often engage in meaningful discussion about the conflicts mentioned in the ‘conversation’ and partake in intelligent debate, I was disappointed that these qualities (often reasons for our selection to a UWC) were not chosen to be displayed on the stage in front of the important audience and the cameras.

The impression that I got from the forum as whole was that there seems to be a divide amongst those involved in the movement around their ideas about what we should be doing, with a great many actually disconnected from the mission.

“UWC makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.”

That is our mission statement. I can’t think of any other institution in the world where so many members of its community can recite their mission statement with such accuracy and understanding of its meaning. I can’t think of an institution where the mission statement is so core to everything we do. However, there are some (in and outside the college communities) that think of it a little differently. Maybe they don’t identify with the last 6 words as much as the first 11. For some it is about bringing people from around the world together for a top education, with service and learning about peace and sustainability seen as nice extras.

There are others, though, who see the last six words as the most fundamentally important and as the reasons why so many people, nations and cultures have been brought together in the first place, so that we can work towards these goals as UWC and a global community.

The first idea, that bringing people together is the key, was very much reflected at the forum, which standing alone was interesting and well put together. It was about (arguably quite a narrow sample of) members of the UWC community networking and meeting up in London, with the forum as it legitimisation. But when we have these differing ideas of what UWC is here for, it is exactly this kind of forum where ideas should be floated, discussed and built upon and, if necessary, the true nature of UWC students’ qualities and experiences are showcased.

Of course, we should be bringing people together from around the world and we should aim to be as diverse a community as possible in order to achieve our goals; but peace and sustainability are at the centre of our mission statement and they mustn’t be ignored or forgotten. Many people involved in UWC, at all levels, need to think about whether peace and sustainability are at the heart of their ideals and their view of UWC, because if we’re going to make a difference and truly educate for peace and a sustainable future, peace, sustainability and community service need to be the focus of everything UWC does.

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