A positive moment of uncertainty for universities?

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The Canadian commentator, philosopher and novelist, John Ralston Saul, talks about the “interregnum” an “in-between time” in his book the Collapse of Globalism (2005). He sees this period as a “short positive moment of uncertainty …[where] it becomes possible to emerge into a less ideological and more humanitarian era”.

We are living in one of these in-between times, where the confidence of global liberalism is being challenged by the rise of local populism, as evidenced by the election of Trump in the US, the EU referendum in the UK, and the agendas put forward by Macron in France and Trudeau in Canada. This is not a political point, but emphasising the changing nature of politics, and more importantly, the changing outlook of the communities that politicians represent.

Attack and defence

As we transition from a system of globalisation to a new (as yet undefined) system it is likely that all institutions – and especially established and traditional institutions such as universities – will come under attack. This has already become apparent over the past few months in the UK and elsewhere.  Some of this criticism is ill-informed (such as the idea that academics have a cushy life with extended summer breaks or universities are running pricing cartels), but other comments are closer to the bone (such as the sustainability of the student fee system or the value for money of higher education).  But in responding to these concerns, we have typically resorted to the language of graduate premiums and the economic returns from research.

However, that response will no longer work.  Universities will be expected to do more than justify their role in narrow financial terms.  

For example – take this passage from the Conservative Party Manifesto for their disastrous 2017 election: “Our institutions of education, old and new, will be critical to spreading success. … It is why we want to see universities make their full contribution to their local community and economy, sponsoring local schools and being creative about how they can open up opportunities for local people … We will make it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools”.

This (re)opens a debate on the public purpose of universities and the changing nature of academia. Historically, the original public purpose of universities was education. With the need for specialised knowledge and technical know-how, research increasingly became synonymous with universities’ missions and their public purpose.  In the US during the latter part of the 19th century a third public purpose was also expected of universities: that of service. This was embraced in the governance and funding of the so called ‘land-grant’ universities, a concept that was picked up in Europe and elsewhere in the establishment of the great ‘civic’ universities of the 20th century.

A poor cousin

But ‘service’ has long been a poor cousin to education and research in thinking about the public purpose of universities.  Perhaps the “positive moment of uncertainty” for universities is a chance to re-think their public purpose, creating parity of esteem between education, research and service.  By doing so, we would provide a credible response to the critics, moving away from the technocratic language of economics to one which is more holistic and focuses on the higher purpose of universities as public institutions.  

The good news is that this transition is already beginning to happen, as was illustrated at the Global University Engagement Summit hosted by the University of Melbourne in September this year. For example, Manchester University’s Strategy to 2020 has a third pillar of ‘Social Responsibility’, with the ambition to embed responsibility in education and research, and also that it will become the distinguishing feature of the University. In Canada, Simon Fraser University has created a Centre for Dialogue, a hub of connections that creates spaces for discussion between industry, Government and indigenous communities on issues of climate change and pollution.

Vision 2029 and beyond

King’s College London has identified Service as one of five strategic priorities in its Vision 2029. The word ‘Service’ is the language adopted to encapsulate our commitment to society beyond education and research. It derives from the institution’s informal slogan ‘in the service of society’, and was a dominant theme in the exploratory staff and student workshops for formulating the strategic vision. In short “King’s wants to serve the needs and aspirations of society, in our individual capacities and together as the community of King’s”. This is not to argue that we do not serve society through our education or our research, but to make the case that universities have a broader responsibility to help shape and transform local communities and societies across the world.

Like many universities, King’s already makes a tangible and unique impact on society, and wants to do even more with our unique emphasis on service in Vision 2029. The King’s Legal Clinic opened this year, with students giving pro-bono advice to those who most need accessible legal services.  Students and academics collaborated with artists to clean plastic debris from the shores of the Thames and make a sculpture from it for the Totally Thames Festival this year. King’s Parent Power Project has engaged over one hundred local parents from widening participation areas on how their children can access universities, from application to student finance. Dental students were supported to travel to Dunkirk and Calais to offer dental check-ups to refugees. Service is already running through King’s and impacting locally, nationally and internationally.

As universities navigate this “in-between time” we need to acknowledge that the public purpose of universities goes beyond education and research and includes a broader contribution of service.  We need to do this as it is integral to a new, refreshed, social contract.  It will also enable us to make a more rounded case of the value of universities to society.

This article is part of Wonkhe’s HE Futures series. There’s more information about the series here.

Jonathan Grant is grateful for the support of Louise Gough and Ben Hunt in developing this article.

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