The merit system at universities is not fit for purpose
University World News here interviews IAU President Pam Fredman, a professor of neuroscience and a former rector of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, on the role universities can play in transforming society and why this needs to be backed up by a merit system that recognises the value of engagement with society as well as impact on society.
It will require funding agencies and governments to rethink some of the pressures they place on universities which hinder them from embracing a transformative mission.
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UWN: The opening plenary at your Dublin conference (26 October, 9am) is about ‘The transformative power of higher education’, but what do you want to transform?
PF: It is about transforming the whole of society, transformation to create a sustainable future – we have to see that we actually have a planet for the coming generations – and universities have a unique role in providing knowledge but also competence, which is the driving force for that change.
Universities very much face pressure from society and government to deliver competence for today’s needs. But that is not only what universities are for.
While we are developing individuals with competence to meet the needs of the day, we also want to develop them to be transformers in society. We have to give them the skills they need to be part of that transformation.
UWN: When you say they are to become transformers, what change will they seek to catalyse?
PF: In Agenda 2030 [for Sustainable Development] – the 17 goals and 169 targets UN members agreed for achieving a sustainable world without poverty and inequality, a world of peaceful, just, inclusive societies with shared prosperity and decent work for all – we have a very strong platform and a driving force.
And of course when we get to 2030, we will have to go beyond. We must seek transformation in all parts of the world to achieve sustainability. It means we have to do something about climate change, deal with our energy problems, move to remove poverty and change authoritarian regimes that are de-democratising, which is not a good thing for sustainability.
Some people think sustainability is just about climate change, but it is about that and so much more – about social justice and fairness, for instance. That is why we have established a global cluster for higher education for sustainable development at IAU, a university network where we recognise that all the SDGs are interconnected.
Take the example of trying to reduce the impact of the pandemic; if you just solve the medical issues, that doesn’t necessarily help since there are so many other factors that need to be addressed at the same time, such as the ability to distribute the vaccine, or the resistance to taking the vaccine due to lack of understanding and so on.
The need for batteries in electric cars is another example. Their production requires critical metals such as cobalt and lithium, which are mainly sourced from certain developing countries where, in some cases, children have been killed while working in those mines. So we look not just at the positive effects of using electric cars but also the pressures and consequences for poverty and child protection.
UWN: How key are the SDGs and targets as a framework for universities to shape their transformative mission?
PF: Absolutely key. We already see that the SDGs are really impacting the strategy and work in universities. And the engagement has increased between the two global surveys that we did on this in 2016 and 2019, and a third report being presented at the upcoming IAU general conference in Dublin this month; and that includes in both education and research and in the whole institution approach.
The United Nations Agenda 2030 with the 17 SDGs, ratified by 193 countries, provides a common platform and opportunity for universities to have something in common and work together to provide knowledge and competence for societies to meet the goals.
UWN: Governments tend to focus on employability and the need for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates in particular. Is that too narrow a focus for transforming society?
PF: It is important to recognise other education providers of competence, not just higher education institutions, and knowledge development through experience. Universities and other higher education institutions educate students for today’s and tomorrow’s needs in the job market and equip them with competence and skills to act in societal transformation.
There is a great need for competence in STEM areas, but we would not be transforming societies by providing education just in those areas. We must also see to it that research money is put into other areas.
Take a Swedish example. There is a huge development in the northern part of Sweden with industries in mining, steel, forest and big tech companies. There is thus a regional need for people, often families, to move into the area and this in turn raises many different societal issues that have to be handled.
For instance, is there enough housing, good schools, health care and also cultural facilities? In addition, there are the environmental, ecological and societal implications of increased mining, and increased demand for energy and so on. Society can’t solve all this by people being educated only in the STEM areas. This is solved by also educating other people in the social sciences and humanities and also the arts.
This is a Swedish example, where I live and have worked in the higher education sector, but the complexity of societal development would be the same in any other country. You have to deal with all stakeholders in society to reach sustainability. And I am quite sure many industries are seeing the need for those other competences to be able to develop businesses. The big industries do care about this.
I am also hearing from leaders of international companies who are saying that if we do not have sustainability as a focus in what we are developing and what we are doing, we do not recruit the best people. There is competition for good people, clever people, and young people are engaged in the sustainable future.
UWN: Are industries telling you they can’t recruit people because young people will only come if they know the organisation is committed to sustainability?
PF: Yes, students and young people in general are often the drivers of a sustainable societal development. It is their future, saving the planet for coming generations.
Their mindset will play an important part of their engagement in transforming societies for a sustainable future and more widely in private and public sectors, in policy organisations, governments and civic society.
The focus on SDGs is also more widely – although far from everywhere – implemented in the curriculum of education programmes, as reported in the IAU surveys on sustainability in higher education mentioned earlier.
UWN: Getting back to universities, to be transforming what do they need to do?
PF: I would say that most researchers, in particular the young ones, want to be part of bringing the competence and knowledge to societies so they can take action to meet their challenges. But the merit system in universities for faculties is not fit for this. This is still focused on publications and citations in high-ranking journals and how much research funding you bring in.
We don’t value the work researchers do in the social impact area, which reflects the values of higher education – the need for societal responsibility. The merit system is something the universities have to change.
This is happening. In the Netherlands, at the University of Groningen, when they look into the merits among the faculties, they look into what they have been doing to engage with society, how much they interact.
For instance, they try to work closely with societal partners to develop sharper and more relevant research questions. This cross-pollination between science and practice generates new insights and angles that contribute to finding better, more sustainable solutions.
Universities have to interact much more with society, including in their practice for students, and build the connection between the professionals and universities.
UWN: Are you suggesting there is a problem, with universities too often setting the research agenda on their own rather than through negotiations with communities, and, if so, how can they improve on that?
PF: First, I would highlight the importance of and need for curiosity-based research in universities – knowledge, the impact of which, if any, might be seen only decades later. But also that any collaboration should adhere to the fundamental values of higher education, including academic freedom, equity, tolerance and so on, as set out in the Magna Charta Universitatum 2020.
That said, yes, I think most researchers will improve on cooperation with communities. But the universities have to ensure that the merit system also accounts for what they are doing for social impact.
The research funders have to see the importance of this too. And there is a clear movement among research funding agencies to see the social impact of the research they are funding.
I sit on the board of the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation in Sweden, which in their larger projects supports high-quality basic research but also requests cooperation with external stakeholders and transfers knowledge into education at all levels. The latter is to see that the research funding also brings competence to the students and thereby also out to society.
UWN: At the recent Magna Charta Observatory conference in Bologna, Italy, there was a lot of talk about universities needing to not just produce knowledge, but also to act on it with society and for society. Is that what you are advocating?
PF: Yes, that is what I mean. But there is something else important to say: if you talk to society, and that could be policy-makers, politicians, governors, industry, etc, you have to find ways to communicate – to people who don’t necessarily read scientific articles – what knowledge is out there.
In addition, that there might be divergent views to be respected that we need to discuss in dialogues.
UWN: How do you assess if you as a university are transforming society? And is there a problem with the way existing ranking and ratings systems assess impact? Are they helping or holding things back in terms of transforming society?
PF: There is an increasing focus in the sector and from governments in many countries on the social responsibility, local mission, of higher education and initiatives to assess the performance and to develop funding systems to promote and value such activities.
I am very critical of rankings in general. They are holding things back. We do what we are measured on. On the positive side, we now see new systems and criteria coming where they look into the societal impact perspective. One has to move from using the quantitative data and have much more qualitative data, because many of these things are not going to be measurable in figures.
UWN: Times Higher Education or THE has a specific impact ranking and by focusing also on individual SDGs, it does throw up a lot of different names than you see at the top of the traditional rankings. Is that a step in right direction or does it have to go much further?
PF: This is a step in the right direction, and it is helpful to recognise higher education institutions that are providing social impact in a specific area. But it has to go further.
It is also important that it is developed in alignment with national initiatives to assess social impact.
UWN: Could you elaborate on how you would like recognition instruments to evolve?
PF: We have around 20,000 (World Higher Education Database – IAU) that will never be among the traditionally ranked institutions but are of relevance and importance for societal needs of knowledge and competence. It is important for them to be recognised, not least by governments and hopefully as a public good.
IAU, with its higher education members, and organisations are in different ways sharing views and experience on societal impact and how to change recognition instruments and systems within the institutions and among external stakeholders. We need joint actions and cooperation for higher education to provide knowledge and competence to support transformation of societies for a sustainable future.
This article is published in partnership with the International Association of Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the content.