Rules of engagement

August 29, 2003

Svava Bjarnason and Patrick Coldstream reflect on the theme of this year's ACU conference for vice-chancellors and principals.

Our cliches point to our preoccupations. The phrases "knowledge society" and "knowledge economy" are so well worn as to seem vacuous, but they still speak insistently for society to its universities. Their message to academics is: "You are the acknowledged specialists in bringing to birth and nourishing new ideas; new ideas are no longer a luxury (if they ever were) but the roots of critical thought, economic growth and international competitiveness. You are there to train young minds and help older ones to reflect on life and work. Who else but universities will be responsible for our intellectual fitness for the 21st century?"

So universities, whether they like it or not, are thrust centre stage. They draw heavily on public funds to expand student numbers and to fund growing research budgets that are generally applauded as laying groundwork for crucial innovation. Alongside the money, however, they find themselves laden with public expectations. These expectations take the form of burdensome questions from taxpayers and from the governments they elect: if universities claim to be public investments and not mere consumer goods, how might we assess, even measure, the return society is getting for the money that universities use? If research yields practical innovations, how many visible advances should society expect and how soon may it expect them? Exactly how is university education supposed to equip graduates to make the best of themselves in life and at work? Perhaps employers should propose a straightforward, skills-based curriculum and be done with the ivory towers?

It is not hard for accountability to run riot, and for apparently quite sensible reasons. Universities are challenged to find radical ways to come to terms with the expectations of the world around them. If they are not to be nannied into ineffectiveness, they have to find the means to take the wider society into their confidence and articulate their choice of major aims and priorities. They need to open and maintain the debate between the lay and academic worlds about what higher education and university research are to be for. They must ensure a constant exchange of information between research theorists on the one hand and practitioners responsible for innovation in industry, the professions and government on the other.

These issues have been the theme of a debate launched more than two years ago by the Association of Commonwealth Universities under the title "Engagement as a Core Value for Universities". Engagement is also the theme of this week's ACU conference.

The ACU will launch a book at the conference in which academics from Commonwealth countries have begun to measure how far these changes are that taking place. Its title, The Idea of Engagement, deliberately, if humbly, echoes fundamental thinking of an earlier century in a book that went under the title of The Idea of the University. The ACU is proposing, first, that universities reconsider their raison d'être and, second, that they do that not alone, nor by peer review, but by engaging society in serious conversation.

Some may be tempted to sidestep that challenge, claiming, for example, that their university already has an industrial liaison effort yielding a multiplicity of "links" or that industry advisory panels already advise on the structure of some university courses, or that some students undertake project work with companies or community groups.

The ACU's consultation document and forthcoming book argue that the notion of engagement with society must go deeper into the ethos and action of universities. It states: "Engagement defines the tone and orientation of a university's policy and practice. Our mission statement, strategic planning, teaching and learning policies, the criteria we adopt for an individual's advancement must all evidence and encourage engagement. They must reflect our respect for the concerns and challenges faced by society."

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