“Backbencher” universities that are outside the research elite are best placed to reflect on the role of higher education institutions and be critical of the sector, according to a Belgian rector.
Herman Van Goethem, who became rector of the University of Antwerp in October, said that the world’s top universities that are in a “comfortable position” tend to focus on “keeping this position” and reflecting on themselves rather than “questioning the world”.
He said it was therefore up to universities that are below this elite cohort, such as Antwerp, to take on the role of improving the sector and to become a “laboratory of the development of society”.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, he said: “We are not the top universities but we are a kind of backbenchers who from our position are better placed to reflect on the role of a university than the top universities.
“Their position is a lot easier – they have power, they are well known, they are not contested.”
He added: “When you are at the top you are more looking at yourself.”
He said that many “backbencher” universities are heavily focused on research but also have a commitment to reflecting on education and their place in society and are often situated in cities with problems of poverty.
“If you take Stanford, it is not even in a city, it is a city of itself,” he said. “These are very small highly ranked worlds and they are lacking an open eye looking at society.”
He added that inequality within the sector, such as the low proportion of students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, means there is “something wrong in the organisation of higher education”.
“We need to reflect on the organisation of higher education in Europe and then, as being backbenchers in a world of big universities, I think we are in a good position to be critical, to ask questions,” he said.
Professor Van Goethem added that universities that are situated in diverse cities should have access to “special financing” that would enable them to develop programmes specifically aimed at helping school pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds attend university.
He suggested that such funds could be used to establish foundation programmes for those students who need further education before completing a degree.
“When you have a population which has its roots partly in migration then you need to pay attention to the social structures [that mean] these people have more difficulty [going into] higher education when they finish high school,” he said.
“There is always a gap in society between rich and poor but education nowadays is making the gap between rich and poor more pronounced than it was 30 or 50 years ago.”
Retaining degree programmes taught in a country’s native language, rather than converting to English-language courses, is also important to widening participation, he said.
“It is dangerous to organise higher education in a foreign language because you are creating new analphabetism where those who do not know English will not be able to participate in higher education.”