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Time to think ‘widely and ambitiously’ about the role of universities in society

Introduction by Croakey: While the COVID pandemic has been tough on Australia’s university sector, does it also bring an opportunity to re-imagine the roles of universities?

Croakey editor Nicole MacKee reports on discussions from a University of Technology Sydney (UTS) webinar last week, with academic leaders Verity Firth, Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt AO, Professor Glyn Davis AC, and Professor Jonathan Grant.


Nicole MacKee writes:

“Higher education is at a critical point,” said Verity Firth, Executive Director, Social Justice, UTS, in opening a UTS webinar exploring the question: “What kind of university does society need now?”

“COVID‑19 has thrown into sharp relief and accelerated forces that have already been driving change in our sector since the beginning of the 21st Century,” she said.

“But now that change is more apparent than ever and for many universities, particularly in Australia, we are really seeing the urgent need to change due to declining revenues and other issues that we’re now facing.”

World of possibilities

Prof Davis

Professor Glyn Davis, CEO of the Paul Ramsay Foundation and former Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne, told the webinar there was a “world of possibilities” available to Australia’s university sector, but policy makers and legislators were focussed on a single university model.

“It’s defined in law, it’s reinforced by regulators, and it’s of course rigorously enforced through the funding model,” he said. “We’ve legislated a single model in Australia for what a university could be, despite all of that opportunity to be other things.”

Davis said now was a time to think “widely and ambitiously” about what was meant by a university.

He said it was important to consider differences in what was taught, how it was taught, and where and when knowledge was shared, adding that some institutions may be highly specialised while others may be residential.

“We might want to reward universities that bury themselves deep in a community or within workplaces. We might hope for large and small; we’ve only got large at this point,” Davis said.

“We might hope for universities that teach in different languages, that emphasise very different traditions of thought. We might want a university committed to Indigenous knowledge and another perhaps based around participatory learning.”

Davis noted the description 50 years ago of a “multiversity” – a place with many roles – and welcomed plans to establish a Multiversity in Western Sydney.

Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt, Associate Dean (Indigenous Research) at UTS and the Director of Research at the Jumbunna Institute, said while universities had been severely impacted by COVID and associated policy decisions, she shared Davis’s optimism.

She said there was no longer an assumption that universities were part of the structures of society that maintained the status quo.

“What [universities] offer are real opportunities for dynamism,” Behrendt said. “We see our Indigenous First Nations people who come through university being able to be agents of change and to effect change at a grassroots level through their thinking, through their knowledge, by matching what they understand of their communities with what they’re learning from the higher education sector and, in a way, actually being greater drivers of change than policy.”

Enriched by diversity

Prof Behrendt

Behrendt said the university sector had been enriched by its embrace of diversity and inclusiveness.

“As it’s [opened] its doors to people from broader backgrounds – more open to women, more open to people from different backgrounds and particularly targeting people from low socioeconomic backgrounds – we’ve seen not just a better, more impactful role for what universities can achieve, but, as institutions, they’ve become richer.”

Behrendt also noted, that in the past five years, there had been a larger cohort of senior Indigenous academics.

“No more is it just one or two First Nations professors at a university,” she said. “We have 13 Indigenous professors at UTS, across a range of faculties [and] disciplines.”

Also, she said, the continuing role for universities to be thought-leaders had been reinforced in these recent uncertain times.

“There’s a two‑speed economy; there are people who are able to make the most of what’s happening and adapt to those changes … and there are those, of course … who fall between the cracks,” Behrendt said.

With these increasing dichotomies, she said, universities have a central role in conversations about the type of society we wish to become.

Social purpose

Also speaking on the webinar, Professor Jonathan Grant, former Vice President and Vice Principal (Service) at King’s College London and researcher in health R&D policy, research impact assessment, and the social purpose of universities, said for too long universities had focussed on research and education in response to government-set policy frameworks.

In his recently released book, The New Power University, Grant argues that universities must stop “acquiescing to government policy and start having confidence” in their social purpose as independent institutions.

“If we put social justice alongside education, alongside research, and make that the core purpose of the institution, then I think we can begin to stitch together the impacts that [Behrendt and Davis] have talked about,” he said.

He said the “new power” at the centre of his book expanded on themes set by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans in their 2018 book ‘New Power: How It’s Changing the 21st Century – and Why You Need to Know’.

“The new‑power values that Henry and Jeremy talk about are decision making, network governance, sharing, crowd wisdom, open-source collaboration, radical transparency, do it yourself maker culture, and short‑term affiliation, all of which we can recognise in the social media Airbnb model,” he said.

“And they contrast that … to old‑power values of managerialism, of institutionalism, of exclusivity, of confidentiality, of professionalism, and of long‑term affiliation and loyalty, which are values which naturally stick to universities.”

Grant said his book explored how new-power values may be applied in the university sector.

Firth highlighted Grant’s call to new-power universities to become advocates in social and political issues.

Public health advocacy

Davis pointed to the role of Australia’s academic public health specialists in the management of COVID-19 as an example of recent social and political advocacy by universities.

He said Australia’s COVID-19 response has been “remarkably evidence-based” due to the input of academic public health specialists.

“When we get the mad stuff that inevitably comes up, it’s drowned out by the rationality of voices that don’t always agree but are in a sense setting benchmarks about what evidence should mean here,” Davis said, noting that this role may not be considered a political one.

“But, actually it is … the view you’re offering, whatever the particular detail, is a reflection of the academic culture, that this is how ideas are dealt with, this is what counts as evidence. If more of our debates were like this, it would be a good thing. Evidence in the end is what matters.”

Community engagement

Behrendt said community engagement was also key if research outcomes were to be relevant and helpful.

“We have to be solving problems that are relevant to particular Indigenous communities and doing it with them and on their terms. That’s not as easy as it sounds,” she said, noting the importance of building trust with communities over decades.

“There is a history of communities, rightly, being incredibly suspicious of researchers and just because we’re an Indigenous unit and we have Indigenous researchers, that hasn’t changed that perception. We don’t get a free pass because of that.”

She said universities needed to focus on who needed the work done, who was being empowered by the work, what were the outcomes and how were they helpful for the community.

“We like to rank our successes in terms of grant outcomes and publications; and they’re not useful outcomes for community,” Behrendt told the webinar.

She added the importance of universities reconsidering their strict structure around the ownership of intellectual property and called for institutions to be flexible in approaches to Indigenous cultural intellectual property.

Dare to be different

Davis said Australia had attempted to establish “new and different institutions” in the past – including Griffith University, where he had his first academic appointment.

“They have started with such promise –- and they remain great institutions – but they’ve lost the magic moment that makes them separate,” he said. “Very few of our institutions have a really distinctive offering that is genuinely different in substance rather than in branding.”

Davis said 100,000 additional students would flow into the sector in the next decade, and this could fill up to four new universities.

But, he said, the trend over the past 20 years was to “shoehorn” new students into existing institutions, which were likely to grow ever larger, noting that some universities (RMIT and Monash) were set to cross the 100,000 enrolments mark in the coming years.

“If we’re going to educate another 100,000 people, isn’t this the moment to do something very different?” Davis asked.

He pointed to Lingnan University in Hong Kong – a small, liberal arts institution, with high quality teaching. Davis said the university was consciously different to other institutions and had no plans to add a law school or medical school.

“Why can’t we do the same?”


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