The secret to saving our universities

July 14, 2011

Steven Schwartz is correct that universities should aspire to cultivating wisdom rather than restricting themselves to the generation and dissemination of knowledge ("Not by skills alone", 16 June). Indeed, the survival of universities depends upon their fostering of wisdom.

In recent years, higher education has increasingly been defined in narrow cost-benefit terms. The value of universities is conceptualised in terms of a graduate's salary premium and the money an institution generates per research spend.

Universities do, of course, make these significant contributions, but that is by no means the limit of our significance. Universities are unique institutions in their capacity to provide a forum for discovery and exploration, for challenge and debate, and for the expansion of horizons.

In defending universities' importance to the economy, we have become victims of our own success; we have adopted the values of our political masters and degraded our own aspirations.

It is time for higher education to resist and, ultimately, to reverse this trend - time for us to reclaim, assert and fulfil our true potential.

I would assert that wisdom - by which I mean the judicious application of knowledge for the good of humanity - is our secret weapon (and I regret that it has been kept such a good secret). Although discovery, invention and analysis are essential, they are insufficient to address the problems presented by today's world: complex and systemic challenges such as health in the developing world or the sustainability of our cities.

Recognising that there are limits to the effect that any single academic - or any single discipline - can have in these areas, in recent years we at University College London have adopted what we call the "Wisdom Agenda". This involves drawing on the breadth of our collective expertise: bringing a range of discipline-specific data, perspectives and methodologies to bear on complex problems. Exploiting our differences adds value to our insights; our collective expertise can exceed the sum of its parts.

We define the outcomes of this work as "impact", one word among a host of terms that universities must reclaim.

Universities must unashamedly cultivate their wisdom, providing insights into and solutions for the world's critical problems. A world suffering ever-deepening crises will not rise up to defend higher education. Rather, universities must defend themselves by proving their value to humanity. Humanity must thrive if higher education is to survive; as academics, our future is in our hands.

David Price, Vice-provost (research), University College London

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