Universities currently suffer from three malaises: they are deadly conservative, not nearly as socially inclusive as they should be, and the research environments that they cultivate remain too enclosed.
This is according to Michael Stewart, professor of social anthropology and vice-dean for enterprise and knowledge transfer at University College London, who will berate the state of the university sector in an inaugural lecture.
In his speech, due to take place at UCL on 5 May, Professor Stewart will claim that institutions are not nearly inclusive enough, “despite our strong ethical commitments”; their research agendas arise “overwhelmingly” out of disciplinary rather than real world concerns; and their structures and procedures are bettered only by Westminster “for their attachment to unchanging tradition”.
“In social sciences and arts in particular we are too closed to the outside world, spending far too much time talking only to each other; we imagine too often that research is something that only universities do,” Professor Stewart will say.
He will name University of Cambridge professor of intellectual history and English literature Stefan Collini as “the most egregious example” of this approach, “but [in universities] we are all a bit like that – imagining that we are the home to the intellectual cream of society and the only site of untrammelled thinking”.
“Related to this, we not only value research over teaching, we allow only a one-way flow between the two – research informs teaching and not vice-versa.”
Professor Stewart believes that by being more “entrepreneurial”, and open to the innovation going on outside the university, institutions can help to tackle the “three great malaises of the current higher education environment”.
“In our teaching we need to completely reinvent the goal and means of undergraduate learning,” he will claim. “Today we need to fight less for the right to teach what we want but rather for the right for students to learn what they want – let students plan their own learning paths; put them, their abilities at the centre of our courses.”
Elsewhere in his lecture, titled “The porous university: creating partnerships in a global city”, Professor Stewart will describe as “one of the most galling aspects of UK universities” the fact that while institutions are so cash-strapped that they can “only offer £1,000 cash bursaries to students whose household income is less than £12,000”, they are happy to let their estate “produce a residual income from rent-outs during six months of the year” while much of the rest “sits simply unused”.
Reforming the way term dates work, universities could use their estates “48 or 50 weeks of the year – without any change in the amount of time individual members of staff have to be on site”.
“Then the option of being able to complete a three-year degree in two years – reducing living costs at least by 33 per cent – also comes on the table.”
It is “extremely difficult” to reinvent an institution as large and cumbersome as UCL from within, he will conclude, “but the creation of a new campus on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park offers not just a chance but probably the necessity to do so”.