UWC Pearson College celebrates 50 years
of United World Colleges


16 October 2012


Celebrating with an Eye to the Future


Sir John Daniel
Chair-designate, UWC International Board



It is a great pleasure to be here for my first engagement as the chair designate of the UWC Board. I thank the UWC system for the confidence it has shown in choosing me for this role and for your welcome today.

I shall first explain how I got here and then share some questions that come to mind as I prepare to assume the chair.

The short answer is that I got here by taking the Canada Line. Thank you for holding this event in my home city just a block away from the office where I spent eight years as head of the Commonwealth of Learning!

The real story of how I got here is a bit longer! In the 1980s I was president of Laurentian University, then a four-campus institution serving North-eastern Ontario. We had set up an overseas campus near Nice, called the Université canadienne en France. Its distinctive feature was that instead of inviting only Laurentian students, we opened it to students from across Canada. The hope was that this would foster pan-Canadian understanding as well as giving students a feel for Europe, and I believe we achieved that.

I was invited to talk about this French campus at Pearson College on my way to a conference in New Zealand. My daughter Catherine had been invited to the parallel youth conference and was travelling with me. When we arrived at Pearson the head, Tony Macoun, suggested that while I gave my talk some of the pupils would take Catherine out in a Zodiac to Race Rocks.

She returned with stars in her eyes and, once we were alone, said to me, “Daddy, I have to go to one of these places!” When we got back to Sudbury we investigated the UWC admission process, she applied and was accepted. Her first choice had been the College of the Adriatic in Trieste, but they explained to us that there had recently been tensions at that school between Italians and non-Italians and so, in order to try and smooth things over, they were offering the North American places to children of Italian extraction – no doubt hoping they would have a foot in both camps.

Instead they offered Catherine a place at the UWC in New Mexico. It took her less than a millisecond to say that would be most acceptable. She had a thoroughly good experience, which made me feel guilty that as a university president with a good salary I was getting a free education for my daughter. I am still uneasy about full scholarships for the children of the rich.  

One of the Canadian pupils who came to the American UWC the following year was Ian Chisholm, who later married my other daughter, Anne-Marie, and is now an active board member of Pearson College. So there are two UWC alumni at family gatherings!

After that visit to Pearson College in 1988 I must have been a marked man, because I was invited later to become an ad personam member of the Council of Foundation of the International Baccalaureate. I spent most of the 1990s on the IB Council, winding up as its vice-president and serving under a tremendous Australian president, the Honourable Greg Crafter.

Those were interesting times for the IB. The rapidly increasing number of schools offering the Diploma, especially in the US, caused a curricular problem. Most of the kids who came into the IB programme in US public schools were innocent of any knowledge of a foreign language, whereas, at international schools like the UWCs and Ecolint in Geneva, it was not uncommon for kids to arrive already fluently trilingual. We adapted the language requirements of the Diploma Programme as best we could.

The major IB innovations in the 1990s were the introduction of the Primary and Middle-Years programmes. There was some sucking in of breath around the Council table when these were proposed, but I am proud of their success and also that Quebec, where I lived for twelve years, is a global flag-bearer for the Middle Years programme. I also note that my daughter Catherine, the UWC alumna, joined Stratford Hall School, here in Vancouver, to introduce the Middle-Years programme a few years ago.

Those years on the Council of the IB were not entirely straightforward. Towards the end of the decade we had to change the leadership of the organization and I learned then, as I have re-learned many times during my ten years as an official in international intergovernmental organisations, that boards with an international membership have even more difficulty making hard decisions than boards whose members share a similar culture. As I set off to observe my first UWC International Board meeting tomorrow, I shall be looking to see whether that principle obtains here too!

Partly because of the IB Council’s extreme discomfort with firm decisions we began a complete overhaul of the IBO’s governance structures. I had left the Council by the time it was completed but I believe that it has stood the test of time. I was particularly sorry that I left the Council just before George Walker came in as Director General of the IBO because he is one of the world’s most impressive international educators. I read with great enjoyment the first volume of his excellent book To Educate the Nations: Reflections on an International Education, and I am looking forward to reading the second as I ease into my duties as chair.

Allow me a final personal comment before I turn to more general reflections. The role of chair of the UWC International Board is pro bono, meaning that you don’t get paid. There are also rumours that you are meant to wear a hair shirt, but I have not yet had confirmation of that! Although it is an unpaid job, the UWC went through an admirably thorough selection process, struggling with Heidrick and Struggles, proper interviews and impeccable process, including a very long job description and person specification.

On reading that long blurb I was surprised to find that the time commitment expected of the UWC chair was 60 days a year, which seemed quite a lot for a pro bono role, but I finished my full-time employment in May, so I can manage it. Later I talked to the current chair, Tim Toyne Sewell, and asked him if he really did put in 60 days. He replied, “Well, in my first year I put in 140 days”. If you invite me back in 18 months’ time I’ll tell you where I fell on the scale of 60 to 140!

But enough levity! I am greatly looking forward to getting to know the UWC system, its schools and, in particular, the school boards. So let me offer some thoughts about how I intend to approach the role. I have titled these remarks Celebrating with an Eye to the Future.

The first draft of the news release for today said that I would share my vision of the future of the UWC. I took the blue pencil to that, because it would be pretentious and presumptuous of me to offer a vision. The UWC system has been built by many hundreds of teachers, many thousands of alumni, and a legion of volunteers who have served on the boards of the school. You do not need a newcomer to offer a new vision.

I see my role as asking basic questions. The fifty years of UWC success that we celebrate today is an admirable achievement. The two universities where I served as president, in Canada and the UK, are both younger than that. Fifty years is long time. The world undergoes big changes in fifty years. This means that the UWC will face a very different environment in the next fifty years than it has in the last fifty.

The nub of the challenge to the UWC system is that educational institutions around the world have now adopted UWC ideals. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Today the websites of most universities and schools rabbit on about their commitment to sustainable development and many throw in aspirations of education for peace and innovation as well. 

In this context I consider that the chair’s role is to ask basic questions about the purpose of the UWC movement drawing on my 25 years’ experience of university leadership and twelve years at senior level in two international intergovernmental organisations: UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning.

To illustrate how times have changed I start with Lester Pearson, the statesman for whom Pearson College is named. He was the founder of the UN Peacekeeping programme – the blue helmets. I met some of them when I visited Cyprus a few years ago, where Canadian peacekeepers had taken up almost permanent residence. But peacekeepers need a peace to keep. Today Canada’s forces find themselves in a more muscular role, trying to impose peace against long odds in places like Afghanistan.

In the decade of the 1990s, before I joined UNESCO as Assistant Director-General for Education, the ‘Culture of Peace’ was the big project of the then Director-General, Federico Major. However, the notion seemed to fall into disrepute after that, perhaps because it did little to mitigate the culture of verbal violence within the organisation.

But we all need peace. In the coming weeks we shall see the inauguration of the UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Peace Education and Sustainable Development, which is being created in Delhi with a $40 million grant from the Government of India. It happens that the person who is going to devote half a year of his life to putting the structures for the new institute in place is my friend and colleague Kabir Shaikh.

After a brilliant career during which he was the only Director of Education in the UK whose authority got a perfect score in the government inspection, Kabir worked for me at UNESCO in what must be the toughest and most thankless job in education anywhere.

That job is heading the Education Department of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, UNRWA, which serves thousands of Palestinian refugee children in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Again, Kabir did a brilliant job.

Peace education in that environment was not an airy-fairy concept. It meant putting his life on the line by rooting out systemic corruption, eliminating corporal punishment, and creating an education system for the Palestinian kids that outperformed the national education systems in the host countries.

I spent 24 hours with Kabir last week and learned much about the importance of school governance and focus on performance that will be useful to me in my new role.

In the context of today’s widespread lip service to peace and sustainable development the UWC system has to come clean. It must be as intellectually acute as possible in explaining what it means by peace education and sustainable development. Even more importantly, it will need to show what it is doing to implement those ideals and how it is measuring its performance.  

Another set of questions revolves around what we mean by international education. Bringing people from different nations to study together was novel fifty years ago. Today it is not. Go into any school in this City of Vancouver and you find the United Nations. What distinctive things must the UWC schools do to add value to their multi-national mix of pupils?

In my speeches as an IB Council member – and read George Walker for a more subtle analysis – I used to say that the IB Diploma tried to do two things. Number one was to sustain an internationally accepted school leaving qualification, which was why Ecolint and Atlantic College got together to design the IB in the first place. Number two was to foster ‘intercultural understanding and respect’.

Are the UWC schools achieving a good balance between those objectives today?

I remember being rather alarmed, when my daughter went to the American UWC in the late 1980s, to find that the school head saw his primary objective as getting the kids into Ivy League schools. This anxiety came back to me when I looked at Pearson’s current Wikipedia entry, which mentions only Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth as the universities to which pupils have gained admission. I don't think that the UWC schools were set up to be a conveyor belt to the brain drain. Maybe the alumni all go back and contribute to their countries’ development afterwards, but I look forward to seeing the statistics.

Another question is how much the UWC defines internationalism primarily in terms of the IB and an international mix of pupils. There are 12 UWCs among over 2,000 schools offering the IB. As a drop in this bucket we need to have a very strong and distinctive colour to our dye. Furthermore, as I noted earlier, most urban schools in OECD countries also have a thorough mix of races and national origins. How are the UWCs distinguishing themselves from the large pack of schools that also teach the IB in multi-ethnic settings?  

The core issue is the sustainable development of the UWC system itself. Even if all scholarships were means tested, running the UWC system remains an expensive proposition. The challenge of raising that money has also changed from what it was half a century ago because the style of charitable giving has evolved.

Today corporate donors, foundation donors and even individual donors are much more process driven. Awkward people in corporate relations departments ask tiresome questions about performance against objectives before they give money! They also tend to favour new projects, especially if they can be called ‘innovative’ over keeping established and successful shows on the road.

Fortunately, the UWC system has tremendous assets in this struggle for funds. One example is our network of National Committees. This gives the system great international breadth and depth. No one can say that the UWC is a ‘Johnny come lately’ to international collaboration. I look forward to getting to know this impressive network of people.

But the UWC alumni are our greatest assets. So long as they leave the schools with lifelong enthusiasm for the experience and the ability to articulate why it was special, the UWC system will prosper. Their numbers are large, they are increasingly senior in their chosen walks of life, and the UWC has contact details for an impressive proportion of them.

When fundraising as a university president I found that other donors calibrated their contributions to the support that the institution was receiving from its alumni. The achievements of the UWC alumni are impressive and the system will rely on them more and more for both financial and moral support.

My role as chair is to encourage the system to maintain a clear and distinctive vision and to demonstrate the achievement of its noble mission. In short, it is to foster a situation where the alumni are not only impressive walking testimonies to the power of a UWC education but also talking advocates for its sustainable development.

Finally, remember that the stream of change is flowing with you. Higher education is internationalising at a breath-taking rate. A school system dedicated to a united world should have all the elements needed to flourish in today’s environment.

So I wish us well for the next 50 years!

Thank you.