Defining the great universities of the 21st century

Nancy Rothwell and Glyn Davis write from the Global University Engagement Summit in Melbourne

November 5, 2017
Melbourne, Australia

What are universities good for? While often the most significant academic breakthroughs take place on university campuses, it is in our hospitals, workplaces and homes where the benefits of research are realised through application.

Many researchers work closely with the public, collaborate with charities, advise authorities and even recruit local residents as citizen scientists. But do universities as institutions and communities do enough to engage the public in their activities? At the recent Global University Engagement Summit in Melbourne, leaders from 25 research-intensive universities met to explore the responsibilities of universities.

So, what did we learn?

Ivory towers?

Universities exist to advance and disseminate knowledge in the public good, a purpose few dispute. But for which public, and for what good?

This is not just a political question, at a time when universities are under pressure to demonstrate the value of public investment. It is also an ethical question – what contribution should universities make to the communities that sustain and nurture them?

While governments invent complex measures to evaluate universities, there is a case for institutions to ask their own questions about who benefits from their research, teaching and other activities. Such engagement is essential for philanthropic donations to universities. Many universities have built communities of donors and advocates who believe in the transformative capacity of universities, and help in turn to shape them.

This idea of partnership, of universities understanding what they seek to contribute, provides a guiding principle for staff, students and alumni, but also for the wider community. At the University of Manchester, public perceptions matter and are measured, not as an exercise in vanity but to track the university’s progress towards its core goals, including social responsibility.

We can do more to encourage public pride in university achievements and contributions. This begins by stressing contribution to the economy and wider society, but it is also about making presence tangible and personal. Moving community perceptions from “that university” to “the university” and hopefully on to “our university” is both our institutional challenge and our purpose. This is not about public relations, but rather a lived and experienced public contribution.

Not a noun, but a verb

Speaking at the summit, Deborah Bull, assistant principal (London) at King’s College London, argued that universities should use the active verb “engaging”, lest it become a noun and too easily relegated as “somebody else’s responsibility”. She went on: “I will go to my grave saying that engaging is not an end of itself, it’s a way to do what we do better.” Manchester takes a similar approach in its social responsibility agenda, where “making a difference” is placed at the core of its teaching, research, engagement and operations.

This framing contrasts sharply with a raft of previous terms, such as “knowledge transfer”, which differed not only in name but in scope and intention. It suggests why some universities and academics in the past consigned engagement to a well-intentioned but ultimately peripheral activity. An engaging, and engaged, university is one that listens with enthusiasm, and speaks with innovation, to its world.

Assess and recognise performance in order to improve

For all the well-aimed critiques around cost and effort involved in the UK’s research excellence framework, the exercise has brought new discipline to understanding and achieving research impact. With the UK recently announcing the introduction of a knowledge exchange framework, and Australia’s plans to next year introduce measures for both research engagement and impact, this is the moment to examine what works and how we might do it better.

As Ian Jacobs, vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, declared: “Impact will define the great universities of the 21st century.” Applying this lens to existing evaluations, and resolving long-standing challenges of methodology, takes on a new urgency. Those charged with measuring research, teaching and now knowledge exchange need a lively conversation with the sector to ensure that the scores have meaning and relevance.

And if measurement of engagement is to shape behaviour in a helpful way, the metrics require the same rigour as research and teaching. Moreover, they need to interact with the existing frameworks because successful engagement is usually embedded within research and teaching.

As Julie Wagner, Brookings Institution innovation specialist, conveyed to the summit, greater external focus demands that we look within: “What does a more engaged university mean about a new way for leadership and culture?” Universities must adopt contemporary structures, be more open to input from other sectors and learn to listen.

Our systems and structures are often too inflexible to allow engagement to flourish and recognise its value.

Define our narrative

Universities are good at telling their stories. Most universities have teams to do just that. But a series of good-news releases is not a narrative. Communication that builds a sense of partnership starts with an overall picture around the shared goal and then uses compelling stories to engage our audiences.

The rewards are considerable. As a number of speakers noted at the summit, addressing engagement challenges can bring about a new era of “public appreciation of higher education”. Equally importantly, better engagement will enhance research and education.

Hence the stakes are high – and we must seize the moment. Leading institutions must inspire communities through action. It is not enough to recognise an ethical challenge – here is the great opportunity to share and learn together through engagement programmes that put a university at the heart of its community.

The diversity of approaches to engagement is a chance to reflect different institutional missions, histories, strengths and communities. Every community and university will find its own path. A conversation across the tertiary sector can then share these lessons.   

Move slowly, but purposefully

The summit opened with a customary Australian welcoming ceremony, in which Aunty Diane Kerr, an Indigenous elder, exhorted us to move slowly, but purposefully. We would do well to heed her advice. Keeping sight of our ultimate purpose – healthy universities at the heart of healthy societies – will help us to hold the course.

Dame Nancy Rothwell is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester. Glyn Davis is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Melbourne.            

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