In the fall of 1998, ahead of the first Arctic Council Ministerial in Iqaluit, Canadian journalist Paul Koring asked in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, “Does a University of the Arctic matter or is it a last-minute effort to find something to show at the first Arctic Council summit?”
How many Arctic initiatives have been greeted the same way – considered an interesting idea, perhaps, but untested, indeed untestable, and thus subject to skepticism. Do we have enough in common, across our northern borders, to benefit from each other’s knowledge and experiences?
Are we trying too hard to create a regional Arctic identity when so much that matters to communities – language, the land, traditional knowledge – is local?
In some ways, UArctic is a microcosm of the struggle to find relevance for the regional level of governance. It has not always succeeded. There were aspirations twenty years ago that UArctic would provide a solution to the challenge of capacity in small colleges, providing opportunities for northerners living in remote communities to access a university education using new technologies. But for many, a circumpolar perspective was too abstract, and local needs too defined to adapt to the flexibility required by multiple education systems, curriculum needs and time zones.
Undeterred, UArctic found its niche, and filled a gap that perhaps we did not know existed back in 1997: issues-based research collaboration, epitomized in its Thematic Networks. Focusing on specific issues – from food security to law, and from teacher education to northern tourism – made the regional scope not only manageable but advantageous.
Universities are natural platforms for regionalization; conferences, student exchanges and field schools are all proven ways to disseminate information quickly across borders, share perspectives and establish consensus. Few other organizations have the same interest and incentive in investing in such collaboration. There is growing recognition of the role that institutions of higher education play as mechanisms for public diplomacy, and the impact has been particularly noticeable in the Arctic region. Russia’s active engagement in UArctic, for example, has created opportunities for cross-border scholarly engagement and understanding that has made regional political isolation more costly and undesirable for both sides.
It is true that the UArctic is only a tool. How useful it is depends a great deal on how much the member institutions decide to leverage it. What UArctic provides is an opportunity: to connect with other like-minded researchers, to broaden the impact of their work, to develop joint programming, and to offer context-relevant mobility opportunities for students, staff and faculty. Numerous funding opportunities, supported by a select few Nordic nations, have allowed good ideas to be translated into meaningful initiatives. UArctic is also arguably the most accessible regional Arctic organization – open to any interested researcher or student, even at the undergraduate level – whereas other regional Arctic institutions tend to have an elitist aspect to them.
UArctic represents the triumph of scope over scale, building on the idea, inherent in the Arctic animus, that collaboration is not only desirable but necessary. Twenty years later, the answer is clear: the University of the Arctic matters.