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Universities need to adapt to become part of shaping a better future

There’s a huge role for universities to play beyond the ivory tower. From

Universities have three “missions”. The first two are teaching and research. The third goes by many names: community engagement, public service, knowledge exchange or sometimes the entrepreneurial periphery.

But the idea that universities should serve the public good has come under strain in recent years. The cost of running universities has outpaced the growth in government subsidies. The “user pays” trend is on the rise.

At the same time student enrolments are soaring, particularly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Academics are wholly consumed with fulfilling universities’ first two fundamental missions, so it’s seldom practical to ask that they invest sustained attention in projects dedicated to issues playing out beyond the walls of their institutions.

But in light of the increasingly complex challenges facing society at large, shouldn’t universities be modifying some of what they do so that public service is no longer an afterthought?

Wicked problems require different thinking

Today’s dilemmas are increasingly multifaceted. The breadth of their impact is unprecedented. Human society is assuming a size and fluidity that are in many respects beyond conventional regulatory control.

This means the current crises of economy, environment, migration, inequality, conflict and disease have ramifications that didn’t exist 50 years ago. The 2008 economic meltdown, militant fundamentalism, refugee crises and climate change are immediate examples.

These challenges are typically associated with issues of sustainability and resilience. They have both technological and social dimensions and require systemic changes in society. They almost always imply social justice issues, too.

It would typically require multi- or trans disciplinary approaches from within universities to tackle these sorts of challenges. They can’t do it alone: governments, civil society and industry must get involved alongside higher education institutions.

There are a number of measures that can be taken to help this vital area of collaborative work succeed better into the future.

Recalculate value

Universities need to develop organisational platforms that are dedicated to researching complex issues of sustainability and resilience. These should typically be geared to multi-disciplinary participation and engagement with external partners.

They already exist in small pockets. The work of the Gauteng City Region Observatory and the Agincourt Health Transitions Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, for instance, prove how sustained longitudinal research can add value to and inform public policy options.

These platforms should be structured to address themes for sustained periods of time because this is how deep expertise and powerful databases are accumulated. It’s a paradox, but the outfit that is geared for the long run is best able to respond with agility to demands that require a quick turnaround. This is because they have deep, enduring knowledge resources.

Universities should identify the thematic platforms which they are best suited to sustain. To do this, they need to draw from their distinctive niche intellectual strengths - for example, sustained attention to a particular domain by several fields of study, like mining or cities or socio-economic inequality.

It is also crucial to craft a revised social contract that properly values what universities deliver for society. Skilled graduates and sound research contribute a great deal to society and this has long been undervalued.

Consider the business value that an engineer or chartered accountant delivers for industry over her or his lifetime. What about the economic value of technological changes derived from basic and applied research? Then there’s the value in societal well being that comes from a wide range of disciplines, from health sciences through to the arts.

We need a more clear-sighted calculus that shows the benefits of investing in talented people and powerful knowledge. Both the public purse and the deep reservoirs of accumulated capital need to reconsider how we provide for the future.

Evidence-based solutions to our systemic dilemmas won’t be conjured out of thin air. They require sustained investment in knowledge fields that address complexity.

Invest in innovators

Some academics are able to confidently, comfortably work across disciplines and with external partners. This kind of research is inherently more time consuming. It requires intellectual agility and personal resilience.

At the moment, audit cultures in universities tend to deter academics from throwing their energy into activities that have deferred or shared outcomes. The kind of multi-disciplinary, multi-actor knowledge work that’s required to trigger systemic change doesn’t fit well into the traditional modes of peer reviewed publication.

Universities need to map a career path for these scholars which acknowledges an academic identity that is geared towards innovative knowledge making, like public policy advice or solutions for complex industrial enterprises.

There must also be changes to universities’ administrative systems. The conventional bureaucratic systems of universities tend to support “business as usual” - teaching and research. They aren’t designed to cater for the responsive nimbleness that’s needed for real change.

Finally, change must happen beyond the higher education sector. Universities need adaptive approaches - and so do their partners in government and business. While universities need outward-facing scholars, government and business need university-facing capacity to ensure reciprocal flows.

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