Higher education's role in a politically disrupted world
A key concept in searching for answers is that of integrating the three missions: teaching, research and service to society. Rather than considering service as a third and separate mission, a number of higher education institutions are approaching research and teaching in a seamless way, aiming to embed social engagement transversally. These institutions encourage students and academics – in and outside their classrooms and laboratories – to be involved in solving concrete problems, together with their local communities.
Their public outreach ranges the gamut from the simple, yet powerful, relocation of some classrooms to the open space of a municipal library – thus providing an opportunity for any member of the public who wanders in, to sit down and listen – to the more complex work of regenerating impoverished cities.
Challenges and opportunities
Higher education institutions are also playing an important role in a politically disrupted world and their leaders are constantly asking themselves how they can best serve their students and their communities while upholding the values of openness and democracy.
Challenges to higher education are many. They include the chipping away at institutional autonomy and academic freedom in some countries, or the erosion of the public trust in higher education in others. There are gripping accounts of campus disruption – at times, violent and dangerous – that have required a measured response to bring back serenity while turning these events into teaching moments.
Broadening access to higher education, preparing students to be active and constructive citizens by focusing on critical thinking and creativity, and promoting public trust in science by bridging the gap between the university as an ‘expert institution’ and the public, are some of the most compelling answers to the current political climate and to questions about the value of scientific expertise and the truthfulness of information.
Reaching out to the community and addressing the current political issues highlight the civic role of higher education and its contribution to the political and social debate in a context in which the news cycle has become shorter and quicker-paced and social media and online platforms have shifted part of the responsibility for the news to any owner of a smartphone, tablet or laptop.
Demonstrating relevance and social responsibility
The need to reach out in different ways means that good governance, communication and accountability are crucial in demonstrating the relevance of higher education to local and world problems. This requires that institutional leaders are adept at communicating with the public in an honest and realistic way.
It entails focusing less on the instrumentalism of higher education and more on values; it is about speaking of the intent of learning rather than just the content of teaching and about the impact on well being, and the social and cultural value of research, rather than just its economic windfall.
Institutional leaders are initiating change in their relationships with both their local communities and the state and are recreating campus communities based on a culture of social responsibility.
However, much remains to be done to align with this priority, notably adapting human resource policies and internationalisation approaches, to name only two key institutional areas. Therefore, this important conversation must be pursued, in order to promote free and open inquiry, ethics and research integrity and the relevance of higher education to its communities and to the world at large.
Andrée Sursock is senior adviser, European University Association, and author of the essay “Higher Education and its Communities: A Transatlantic view on openness, democracy and engagement”, which presents the highlights from the 2018 Transatlantic Dialogue of university leaders. The event was co-organised by the European University Association with its sister organisations, the American Council on Education and Universities Canada, at the European University Institute, near Florence, Italy, in July 2018.