Access and collaboration ‘key to ensure community benefit’

Experts warn that some will be left behind amid rapid sector transformation 

April 20, 2021

Collaboration and equality of access will be key if universities are to ensure that all parts of society can benefit from their research, a conference heard.

Asked at the Times Higher Education Innovation & Impact Summit whether higher education institutions were a progressive force for all, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, answered: “Unequivocally, no.”

“Our products have become so significantly powerful and so transformative at such a rapid rate of speed, that we’re leaving behind a trail of those not benefiting from our discoveries, inventions and access to our educational opportunities,” he said.  

In terms of research, Professor Crow implied that the HE sector was still too fragmented to make a concerted push on the issues that matter. He used as an example the global problem of climate change, which he said had “shot past institutions”.

“We’re still fumbling around with hundreds of institutions and thousands of faculty where there is no cohesion,” he said. “We can’t continue to do that. We have to have egalitarian access and scale to have the outcomes, for global planetary and human health success.”

Dawn Freshwater, vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, spoke more positively from the viewpoint of New Zealand, which has been a world leader in using evidence-based policy to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We’ve seen the rehabilitation of the value of the expert in the last 12 months,” she said. “What it’s done is help people understand the value of research universities.”

Lily Kong, president of Singapore Management University, said that institutions had to look beyond the research-related goals being pushed in Asia.

“The models for universities that are upheld are research-intensive universities,” she said, warning that certain types of research might be overlooked if they were not considered as worthy in the “global currency of citations.”

“The kind of work that has local impact for Asian communities can be lost in the race for a certain kind of model for university,” she said.

Professor Kong also emphasised the need for equal access to teaching and learning. “In the Asian context of massification – and a real desire to pivot to being research universities – we run the risk of doing a disservice to the larger population by excluding students from certain opportunities.”

“How can universities enrich the lives of first-generation college-goers, or those in the workforce who need upskilling?” she asked.

Suzanne Fortier, vice-chancellor of McGill University, said that inequalities were evident both locally and globally.

“There’s an upward trend in education across the world. But dig a little deeper, there are a lot of differences,” she said. “Even in our communities and cities, you see differences in the ability of people to access education. People talk about education as a ladder for social mobility – but you still need to get to that ladder.”

Professor Fortier said that the question was not so much whether universities could change the world, but whether they could “equip our students to change the world.”

To do so, “we must protect our freedom of expression, so that these things can be debated in an open way. A lot of changes are achieved by people with different views.”

Professor Freshwater added that there must be “no boundaries on imagination, curiosity, and the amusement and revelry we expect from our students and institutions.” 

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