Universities confronting the “post-truth” age must meet the challenge head-on rather than retreating into an isolated comfort zone of teaching and research, according to an Australian sector leader.
Dawn Freshwater, vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia, said that evidence-based policy was vital during times of political stability, let alone today’s “highly febrile” geopolitical climate. She said that, with trust in public institutions tanking, and “alternative facts” and personality politics driving the agenda, it was no time for universities to hide their light under a bushel.
Professor Freshwater said that universities’ advice was grounded in the scrutiny and peer review that underpinned their research. She said there was value in being considered “in an environment of toxic speed”, and offering well-informed policy options “in a climate where democracy is undermining democracy”.
On 22 May, the university launched its new engagement arm, the UWA Public Policy Institute, during the Worldwide Universities Network conference in Perth. Professor Freshwater said that it would be a “shopfront” where industry, government and community organisations could seek advice – particularly on Indo-Pacific concerns.
“Many of our neighbours in the region are grappling with issues relevant to UWA’s research strengths such as energy, agriculture, health, governance and economic development,” she said. “We aim to take our engagement with communities both at home and internationally to a new level as we strive to be more visible and have greater impact.”
UWA said that the institute would act as a conduit for expertise from its Perth USAsia Centre and collaborations with India, Indonesia and Africa. It will provide short courses and professional development programmes as well as “thought leadership” and policy-focused reports on social and economic indicators.
The chair of the institute’s advisory board, international law professor Stephen Smith, said that it would be able to operate in time frames driven by the 24-hour media cycle rather than academic publication patterns.
“One of the ambitions we have is to ensure we have timely responses and access to our experts,” he said. “That requires people in the university thinking in a different way from the traditional approach to peer-reviewed research and the like.”
Professor Smith, a former Australian foreign affairs and defence minister, said that politicians were often assailed by problems that required expertise beyond the scope of departmental advisers. He said that the services offered by the new institute – and university engagement arms like it – would benefit MPs from across the political spectrum.
“In the modern era, decision-makers are under much more pressure to respond quickly. There’s scrutiny at every level; not just traditional media but social media. Having the knowledge that an independent impartial body out there might have an expert who can at least in the short term put you on the right track – that’s invaluable to decision-makers.”