“What was happening could be described as a great ship being turned and blunted and shoved about and pulled around by many small tugs. Once turned by tide and tugs, it must set a new course and start its engines turning. On the bridge which is the planning centre, the question must be asked: All right, I know now where I want to go. How do I get there, and where are the lurking rocks and what will the weather be?”
– John Steinbeck, The Winter of our Discontent, Pan Books, 1961, p. 98
Ever since their establishment as institutions of higher education and research, universities have been different. Their evolution across the past ten centuries has seen them infused with an enduring ethos to benefit society. Irrespective of individual institutional personalities and their manifold geographical coordinates, this remains a distinguishing characteristic of any university. A university is still a community of teachers and scholars. It, therefore, remains a veritable epicentre of ideas, a concept factory, the rightful birthplace of innovations and products that make the world a better place in which to live. It is a think-tank for the betterment of society, an environment where the very practice of education is an exercise in social enrichment.
Certainly, that remains the intent.
However, we live today in a world of constant change, uncertainty and unprecedented challenges, a social situation accentuated by the global events of 2020 and 2021. We find ourselves in profoundly difficult territory.
While universities, on the face of it, continue to operate according to their broad traditional ethos, they are increasingly required to question whether they have the societal cut-through expected of institutions of higher education and research. Are the graduates emerging from universities today scholars in the truest sense of the word? Are they the thought leaders and change managers who are capable of not just meeting the demands of an uncertain environment but able and determined to transform it for the greater good? Are the products at the end of the university assembly line utilised in the delivery of social benefit?
Achieving that cut-through and hitting those societal targets is no longer a matter of course. The digital revolution has seen to this. Technologies have changed the ways we think and interact forever, not least in terms of information and know-how and how these are acquired and shared. A new currency is at play in the business of knowledge, and the modern value of higher education and research has come under pressure. The academic foundations and research rigour that once positioned the university on a higher plane are now under siege from easily accessed information (frequently camouflaged as expert knowledge). Multi-national tech companies have provided global platforms for the convenient proliferation of opinion in the absence of verified facts, and these often run counter to university endeavours and principles.
What of society-serving universities and the platforms they provide for scholars and researchers and the products of their academic enterprise? It is a prescient question which has risen ominously as the university funding model has been depleted and dented and ultimately damaged by a turbulent economic landscape, competition and the loss of traditional market-share, and ever tightening public funding available to support university activities.
Yet the need for universities to play their more than noble part in addressing societal issues has never been so clear. The onset of a global pandemic and its implications for health and governance into the future has amplified this need. Unless the role of the university is reinvigorated in proficient fashion, further challenges of profound import lie waiting for the people of this planet. There can be no doubt that the university – the institution of higher education and research, the community of teachers and scholars – is the entity best placed to meet these challenges. Society needs universities to stay relevant and provide benefit for all their stakeholders.
But staying relevant in a world of change requires change. And while a new or renewed way forward must be forged, it is incumbent on any university not only to do the right things, but to do them right. Staying relevant requires intent, focus, proficiencies, and organisational character. It means shaking off moribund shackles of intellectual isolation, and re-engineering the university mechanisms to harness the knowledge and energies of educators and researchers determined to flourish in the face of exponential change and challenges.
At the same time, the benefits of the educator’s and researcher’s work must accrue to the largest social cohort; otherwise a university will not achieve its mission and its relevance wanes. Educators and researchers must be provided with the platforms to nurture their sense of opportunity so it reaches tangibly beyond campus boundaries and seeks out collaborations that can optimise the impact of their work on a broad and meaningful scale.
The aim of The University Imperative is to present universities of all shapes and sizes around the world with a sense of what is required in this climate. It constructs a framework with which they can confidently calibrate their operations. The enduring goal of the university has not changed; delivering a beneficial impact for society remains the order of the day. What has changed is the emergent need for business disciplines in the delivery of social benefits.
Across ten chapters The University Imperative constructs a conceptual scaffold which considers the university’s bearings in this hectic social space while also keeping a measured eye on the resources at a university’s disposal. Any inclination to plot a way forward using rankings and recruitment like GPS coordinates must be resisted. Rather, the abiding importance of tertiary education and research must be reasserted, perhaps recalibrated, so that these staples of university can deliver the graduate and research outcomes that make our new world of perpetual flux a better place for all.