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A manifesto for the 21st century university

Universities need to change fundamentally to serve 21st-century society. Mary Stuart and Liz Shutt introduce their manifesto for the permeable university
This article is more than 4 years old

Mary Stuart is director of leadership development at Minerva and was vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln

Liz Shutt is Director of Policy at the University of Lincoln and Greater Lincolnshire LEP

Our 21st Century Lab is our attempt to start a new conversation on the role of universities in our time.

Our starting premise – elaborated through a series of essays published as Thinking Ahead – is that universities need to respond to changes in wider society more rapidly and in some cases more effectively than ever before.

The purpose of universities in the 21st century: a manifesto sets out our thinking on the relevance of universities and how we can better support our society to flourish at a time of significant upheaval and volatility.

To develop the manifesto, we set out to engage with the university community and those involved in higher education policy, drawing on expertise from a range of different countries who share similarities in their higher education systems: the UK, Australia, South Africa, Canada, the USA and Ireland. We also included policy advisors and thinkers such as the OECD and Wonkhe, as well as higher education legal advisors and community and cultural sector practitioners who link with the sector in different environments.

We also conducted focus groups and surveyed students and alumni as part of the process, and as you would expect we conducted an extensive literature review to inform our thinking. We are immensely grateful to our reference group for their generosity in commenting on drafts, and in attending dialogue discussions, which were always lively and passionate.

Tuning into the challenges of the 21st century

We begin by setting out a series of ten interrelated grand challenges based on observations from a wide range of influential global thinkers on 21st century society. This work is not intended to be predictive of the future but instead to illustrate the complex, interrelated and unpredictable nature of change we are experiencing in our world. At any given moment universities have a role to play to shape, connect, understand and educate.

Our response is to suggest that universities need to adapt and respond to these changed circumstances. We believe this review is timely and we feel this is confirmed by the range of other projects being developed such as the College of the Future for further education and the range of papers on specific aspects of learning flowing from laboratories such as the MIT’s taskforce for the Work of the Future.

We argue that the higher education system needs to embrace a more fluid, more contingent world, to create more permeable relationships within universities’ communities and beyond to wider society. Here, we set out our core recommendations.

Permeability is the new lens

The permeable university removes barriers to interaction, both within the institution and beyond it. Permeability should be the new lens which reframes the historic, core activities of universities; across organisational and national boundaries, between different groups and communities, technologies, and disciplines. This will require rethinking at every level; from the system and policy framework within which universities operate, through to the governance of institutions as well as, of course, what they deliver.

Permeability is an approach, a method for re-development of the higher education environment, a way of doing; which institutions, governing bodies and sector organisations can use to re-find purpose and values; to educate, to research and to engage more widely.

Delivering permeable education, research and engagement

Embrace students as central to the renewed community of scholars. The process of reflective learning needs to apply to the whole community of scholars, staff and students together. Students reinvigorate and refresh the community, and staff bring experience and history. Both bring wisdom from different stand points. Sharing together and challenging each other creates a more robust university environment.

Nurture lifelong connections between universities and graduates with continuous learning at the heart of the relationship. As they move on in their careers, graduates will need to repeatedly re-engage and contribute from their experiences beyond university to continually reinvigorate institutions creating a continuous learning loop. Create space for new adult learners as society changes where adults can re-find learning appropriate to their changed circumstances.

Develop near-to-teaching research. There is value in the experience of discovery through research across the disciplines that has direct application in a world where graduates will have to gather knowledge, investigate, learn and adapt throughout their careers.

Further the interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary project. The growing complexity and interrelatedness of the challenges that surround us means that inter/transdisciplinarity needs to go further to enable research teams to come together with an ecosystem approach that can embrace the dynamic (almost living) aspect of research investigation. Bridge the Arts/Science divide and reconceptualise disciplines to meet 21st-century needs.

Respond to an age of rapid, widespread opinion formation and amplified participation by connecting with wider society. A core contribution of the research process is to slow things down to answer the big, deep, long-term questions – this can seem particularly at odds with a rapidly changing 21st century. Navigating this divide is tricky but essential and the approach has to include greater participation and connection to move beyond distrust in expertise to a world where different contributions are recognised, acknowledged, challenged and reformulated.

Governance for the permeable university

Move beyond a single governance structure. Governance in the 21st century is complex and multifaceted. Expecting a single body to complete all aspects of oversight is no longer fit for purpose. Rather a family of inclusive governance structures relevant to specific needs. Ensure strong communication across each part of the structure with clear lines of responsibility and terms of reference, drawing in diverse voices, is a more appropriate framework in the current climate.

Use the full breadth of governance bodies to broaden representation. Boards in themselves cannot be representative of all communities but there needs to be appropriate debate and diversity threaded throughout the governance structures.

System changes to support the permeable university

Ensure regulation systems and funding mechanisms are balanced so that there is a protected space for experimentation. The core of the university offer must continue to be quality benchmarked, supported by a robust regulatory system but we must also ensure that there is scope for universities to adapt, take risks and innovate.

Challenge-led research frameworks and funding. Strong partnerships between policy makers, societal interest groups and researchers to create robust thematic frameworks, using funding to effect policy and societal needs. In the current climate a strong focus on the big challenges facing society is a useful tool to driver interdisciplinary research to find more robust solutions.

The manifesto is the product of our thinking and our discussions. We hope it is a useful starting point for colleagues in different environments to take forward within their own contexts, to stimulate further thought and engender better dialogue between communities, policy makers and universities. We hope the manifesto will be a document for debate rather than a final statement of intent and we look forward to the ongoing discussion.


5 responses to “A manifesto for the 21st century university

  1. This is a really galvanising piece – thank you for sharing. It’s inspiring to read about what might be possible if we can find more permeability, fluidity and courage.

  2. Completely agree with Louise. And linking the core idea of permeability with that of engagement – with all communities of practice and interest, wherever they may be found and however much they may disagree with dominant thinking – must be fundamental to the future debate. Hope to be involved in one way or another as that discussion unfolds.

  3. Yes, thanks for sharing your work. I am particularly interested in how universities move ‘beyond distrust in expertise’ as there certainly seems to have been a societal shift here which I think is really damaging. Like Stuart – I look forward to seeing how this discussion progresses.

  4. A welcome intervention – many sensible suggestions – the most important seems to be a radical change to current governance that, accidentally or not, perpetuates privilege and the status quo – I do not yet see a clear plan of implementation

  5. Thank you for an interesting read and good luck with your proposals. I read with particular interest your reference to a protected space for innovation. I do hope you (we) can make that happen. My worry is that we are so constrained and straight-jacketed by conformity and compliance that such a vision outlined above is all too often stifled. I think we also need to develop ways that reach out and engage with our students pedagogically speaking, that will enable the skills and knowledge to adapt in creative ways to a fast-paced and changing environment, where employment and careers present new opportunities that are currently unknown and unknowable.

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