Is higher education serving the public interest?

The recent Brexit vote and the United States presidential election, as well as votes in Italy and Austria, highlight a growing gap between elites and others in society. In so doing, they attack some fundamental values of higher education – multiculturalism, international collaboration, free flow of people, ideas and capital and liberal social values.

As questions are asked about the relevance and value of our public institutions, the public is also asking whether higher education is serving its interests. Those interests inevitably vary depending upon who is asked – students, parents, employers, politicians, etc.

While there is a consistent view that a college education is important and highly valued, surveys show concerns about the cost and relevance of higher education from many people who are unaware of the sector’s diverse functions and contributions to society. Instead there is a war of words about graduate attributes and career readiness.

These tensions highlight an underlying message. While higher education has historically had a close relationship with the city and country of its founding, today it is considered part of the elite, with universities being islands of affluence amid “seas of squalor, violence and despair”, as Ira Harkavy, founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, stated.

Thus, how higher education engages with its publics – beyond its campus walls and academic community – is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Civic engagement

While civic engagement may be in vogue, there is little consensus about what the concept means. There are three broad models of higher education engagement, each with different implications for organisation, management and leadership within higher education institutions.

The social justice model focuses on students, curriculum and pedagogy. It emphasises community-based research, community-based learning, volunteering and knowledge exchange activities. Accordingly, the key responsibility usually lies within the student or access office, or within teaching and learning or continuing education.

At the other end of the spectrum, the economic development model focuses on the commercialisation of research through intellectual property deals, technology transfer, and new business formation. Responsibility tends to lie with the research and technology transfer office or associated business liaison functions.

In these two models, civic engagement is assigned to a ‘third pillar’ – or parallel set of activities.

In contrast, the public good model sees engagement wholly embedded within and across all functions and units of the college or university. Acting as a bridge across teaching and research, it is supported by a distributed or matrix organisational and leadership framework. However, achieving a holistic approach along these lines is much easier said than done – which is why many institutions choose the path of focusing on either community or enterprise engagement.

Despite the underlying presumption that engagement is a relatively simple and uncontested process, the fact that universities and their stakeholders both operate in complex and messy environments needs to be recognised.

Challenges and tensions of societal engagement

Eight case studies, two each from Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, present a varied picture of how different higher education institutions respond to the growing demand for greater societal engagement and the challenges and tensions that emerge during the process.

The accounts show that no two institutions define, manage and implement engagement in the same way. They reveal tensions between shaping an institutional engagement strategy at the corporate level and embedding it within the academic heartland, and correspondingly the balance between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom up’ perspectives.

It is clear from all eight case studies that civic engagement is far more than a shallow public relations exercise used to explain the institution to the outside world. The challenge for university leaders is how and to what extent engagement is embedded, measured, encouraged and supported within their universities.

The responsibility of the university to society is not new, but has been given greater saliency as the challenges facing local communities, nations and the wider world have heightened in intensity, inter alia, the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on the competitiveness of regional and national economies, the long-term challenge of climate change and, within Europe, the immediate challenge of absorbing refugees from Syria and surrounding countries.

Growing elitism

At the same time, there is strong research evidence of increasing differentiation and stratification between elite and non-elite institutions and their students. The pursuit of ‘world-classness’ is driving a wedge between institutions and their communities in terms of shifting strategies and priorities towards local, regional, national and global activities. Perhaps, not surprisingly, universities find their campuses referred to as representatives of an ‘insulated political culture’.

There is no single blueprint. But there is the necessity for higher education institutions to learn from each other and by working together to develop frameworks for institutional leadership and management that recognise the importance of civic engagement and institutionalise this activity into the academic structure and professional support mechanisms of the university.

Failure to treat this agenda more seriously could see an ever-widening gap opening up between higher education and its publics. After all, and regardless of changes in the proportion of direct exchequer funding our universities and colleges receive, they remain dependent upon society for both core and research funding and this means that public duties cannot be ignored.

John Goddard is emeritus professor and former deputy vice-chancellor at Newcastle University, United Kingdom. Ellen Hazelkorn is policy advisor to the Higher Education Authority (Ireland) and emeritus professor and director, Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. John Goddard, Ellen Hazelkorn, Louise Kempton and Paul Vallance are editors of The Civic University: The policy and leadership challenges, published by Edward Elgar.