Can universities maintain their cultural identity in a blended world?

A university’s identity cannot be neatly packaged. It changes over time and has different meanings to the diverse groups that make up that institution, says Nic Beech

Nic Beech's avatar
Middlesex University
17 Nov 2021
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Can universities maintain their cultural identities in our increasingly hybrid world

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The nature of cultural identity has long been debated. Who am I? Where do I belong? What are my values? What do I want to achieve? These questions are particularly pertinent in the current higher education context. With the move online, a big challenge for universities is how they can maintain distinctive cultures and identities – if students are increasingly studying in blended modes, how do they differentiate between universities and how do they develop a genuine sense of belonging?

Of course, digitisation offers both challenges and opportunities, and the real question is how students connect to staff and each other. In-person and tech-enhanced approaches can both be used to foster belonging and connection, because what matters most is the university community.

A university’s identity cannot be neatly packaged into a logo or strapline. Identities change over time and have different meanings to the diverse groups that make up a university. The challenge for us at Middlesex University, for example, is to maintain our values in the blended world while nurturing a sense of belonging among our audiences. However, the needs of undergraduate, postgraduate, staff, overseas students, our Dubai campus as opposed to the one in London, and our research collaborators are all very different.

The functionality of a university’s digital presence has a key role in constructing identity. It has to work and be accessible, but that’s not the end goal. The main function is to connect diverse groups so that the university’s identity builds on their dialogue, priorities and contributions. Our online teaching resources, web presence, social media, Yammer, use of videos, Zoom, Teams have helped us do this, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of our ultimate goal, which is connection and community.

Of course, universities all have different identities, but in March 2020 we were all in the same boat − big buildings without students or staff. From the get-go, maintaining the connection with our audiences was our priority, and that’s how we viewed the role of digital technology. Students and staff groups have coordinated to support each other, to learn, research and work on the changes they want to see in the world. Our anti-racism network is a great example of this, with its online events, social media and the influence of its research in the health service and policing. Our university’s identity grows from initiatives such as this, and it is this authentic Middlesex that we learn from and need to support.

The same can be said for the huge amount of work that went into supporting social mobility. Middlesex has the second- highest proportion of students in the UK who were eligible for free school meals, and during lockdown many of our students were studying in shared family homes with little access to IT. Just one step taken involved the library and learning services departments providing laptops, dongles and physical space for those who needed them. This compassionate and action-oriented approach is another facet of our identity that we can reflect and build on as a whole university.

Middlesex is a highly diverse community, with more than 40,000 students studying at campuses in the UK, Dubai, Mauritius and Malta, and almost 30 per cent of our staff and more than 60 per cent of our students come from global majorities (or ethnic minorities). Digital technology has helped us connect across cultures and continents, with the 2021 Research Students’ Summer Conference bringing together researchers from around the world virtually − different experiences and views, but one university.

Technology also allows us to use learner analytics to support students and reach out to them when needed in a way we’ve never been able to before. Just one example is the digital platform Kortext, which we’ve used since 2014 to support our integrated approach to learning in that we can identify students who may need extra support and provide it to them either face to face or virtually.

In 2020, against the backdrop of lockdown, we launched a mass strategic conversation among staff and students to help develop a new 10-year strategy. We received more than 4,000 contributions from across our campuses that shaped our focus, ambition and way of working. This level of engagement would not have been possible in a non-digital world.

Ultimately, culture is not about our buildings, our robes or other traditional academic symbols. We maintain and build cultural identity by focusing on what’s important − our community of students and staff, and how we can better meet their needs.

Our students have demonstrated their amazing resilience and inventiveness during the pandemic. Now we have a collective responsibility to support the learning that will prepare them for careers that don’t yet exist, in the blended society we know is coming. What an exciting prospect to have come out of such a difficult couple of years.

Nic Beech is vice-chancellor of Middlesex University.

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