It’s 2016, and no time to rest on our laurels

In praise of ambition: no university, however esteemed, has an automatic right to reach the 22nd century, argues Edward Byrne

January 28, 2016
Woman asleep on desk with large alarm clock

Despite our successful histories, there is no automatic right for King’s College London or any other leading university to reach the 22nd century. To do so, we will need to recalibrate our missions and operating cultures to embrace the need for greater levels of societal engagement.

Universities have, of course, evolved considerably over the centuries to meet the evolving needs of the societies around them. There are stark differences in the medieval University of Paris, the University of Oxford of Cardinal Newman’s time and the University of Berlin-influenced modern research university that emerged later in the 19th century.

Yet there has been little change in articulation of universities’ general mission since the Second World War. Excellence in education, in a disciplinary and a broad sense, and the creation of new knowledge remain central. This is in spite of an increase in scale and the rise of the more loosely bound “multiversity” described in the 1960s by University of California system president Clark Kerr.

While many universities acknowledge that they have a third mission beyond teaching and research – to engage with the world in ways that generate social and economic value – it is not as fiercely embraced and deeply embedded in their day-to-day activities as it could be.

Our society is changing more dramatically than at any time since the Enlightenment, and in ways deeper and potentially more challenging than ever. Globally, we face an array of societal and environmental challenges that exceed the purview of any single academic discipline. Universities must do more to pool their academic expertise, data and relationships to really address such challenges in an applied context. They must also facilitate engagement between their staff and non-academic “thinkers and doers” who can help their research flourish. They must foster collaborations with businesses, charities and public sector organisations that go beyond ad hoc projects – without sacrificing institutional independence and academic freedom.

In the sphere of education, universities must be more ambitious in fulfilling their role to provide students of all ages with knowledge relevant to the disciplines of tomorrow. The vagaries of the 21st-century labour market, as well as the aspirations of individuals to challenge themselves, will lead to growing demand for postgraduate-level education to support career redirection at least once during a working life. The information revolution and new online education delivery models, including the flipped classroom, should become increasingly central to our endeavours. They can help us to offer really rigorous education to a much greater number of people in a way that wraps more effectively around the time demands of working and family life.

UK universities must also maintain their tradition of contributing to social progress not only locally and nationally but also globally. International graduates already return home not only with globally respected qualifications, but also with experience of working with people from diverse backgrounds, and of debating differences sensibly and respectfully. But more can and must be done. This may involve contributing to securing humane, sustainable solutions to the present crises in the Middle East. It may equally involve, as Labour former chief secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne has argued, playing an integral role in emerging relationships between sub-regional tech clusters in the UK and the rapidly growing cities and innovation precincts of China and India.

In short, universities must be more attuned and responsive in real time to challenges facing their communities, countries and planet. They must be bridge-builders between cultures, governments and key institutions and opinion-formers of global civil society. And they must be more ambitious in fostering an entrepreneurial, change-making spirit in students and staff.

This will necessitate a greater degree of flexibility in how they both envision and deliver their key activities and engage with external societal audiences. And it will sometimes push academics outside their comfort zones. But the prize – to thrive as institutions and to make a greater contribution to humanity – will be well worth the struggle.

Edward Byrne is president and principal of King’s College London. This is an abridged version of his 2016 Commemoration Oration, delivered on 27 January.

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