The creation of environments for passing on knowledge has been going on since before the establishment of the Library of Alexandria or Plato’s Academy. Hence, universities as teaching institutions have been around for at least 2,000 years, even if they acquired their modern name only a millennium later.
Scholars have always been involved with the creation of new knowledge but the pursuit of research as a key task of universities gained enhanced practical significance during the Humboldtian university reform and the Industrial Revolution, about two centuries ago.
Creating and maintaining teaching and research facilities is expensive, however, and the immense social benefits that they provide can take a long time to be realised. Thus, universities have been increasingly pressed to provide more short-term benefits, too. The recognition of outreach as a distinct mission became common in the US around the middle of the past century and has spread to other regions, including Latin America, in the past few decades.
In recent years, universities have taken up myriad further responsibilities. Among these are what I call the three “I’s”: (technological) innovation, (social) inclusion and internationalisation.
Clearly, university responsibilities are increasing exponentially. But, as is typical of exponential growth, the dynamics are unsustainable in the long run. One way to address this is to limit size. For instance, my institution, the Federal University of ABC (UFABC), a Brazilian public university established in 2006, aims to have no more than about 20,000 students and to focus exclusively on science, technology and the humanities.
Small, young universities also have more freedom than large, traditional institutions to innovate in response to the interrelated challenges we face today. UFABC, located in the industrial belt of São Paulo (a region known as ABC), is a case in point. The “three ‘I’s’” are an intrinsic part of our mission, but they are supplemented by a fourth “I”: interdisciplinarity. To this end, we have no academic departments to separate students and faculty who have different specialisations but common interests. Our only concession to the organisational (and perhaps psychological) need for some subdivision is our three “centres”, dedicated to natural sciences; applied social and engineering sciences; and cognition, computation and mathematical sciences.
Research is done in and across these centres, in addition to hundreds of small research groups and a few larger research units called nuclei, which are, by design, interdisciplinary and temporary, so that they can neither emulate traditional discipline-based departments nor crystallise into bureaucratic structures.
Undergraduates are exposed to research from their first year. Multi-user laboratories, run as university facilities, provide access to advanced equipment for all researchers, regardless of the group, nucleus or centre they are associated with. Graduate studies are supported by university-funded scholarships and include options for interaction with industry.
There are only two entry-level undergraduate programmes at UFABC. Known as interdisciplinary bachelor’s degrees, one focuses on science and technology, the other on science and the humanities. Both address broad subjects such as energy, life, information, society and the structure of matter in compulsory classes, supplemented by technical skills classes in areas such as maths, computing and experimentation.
Up to half the course load consists of optional classes, which can lead to one of 24 engineering, teaching or bachelor’s degrees, in addition to the interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree. Thus, the UFABC model does not consist of two successive but largely independent degree cycles, as in the Bologna model. Rather, two overlapping undergraduate-level cycles are integrated in one common pedagogic structure.
In this way, we hope to do justice to university tradition while facing the scientific, technological, pedagogic, economic and social challenges of the 21st century. In the past, universities have lived up to these challenges. The future remains in our hands.
Klaus Capelle is rector of the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in São Paulo, Brazil. He will be one of the speakers at Times Higher Education’s Latin America Universities Summit in Bogotá from 6 to 8 July.