Has it ever been more obvious that universities are a profound force for good in the world?
From the international teams of biomedical scientists racing against time to develop tests, treatments and vaccines to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, to the social scientists helping us to understand and mitigate the profound socio-economic fall-out of the crisis, to the arts and humanities scholars bringing vital critical thinking and communications skills to help us all imagine a different future for humanity itself – the extraordinary events of 2020 demonstrate the broad and powerful impact universities have on society.
And yet, it seems like universities are under attack.
“We have witnessed the rise of populist nationalism, with politicians across continents challenging the core values of globally-focussed, outward looking universities, championing restrictions to the open, international flow of talent and ideas that are the lifeblood of universities.”
Public trust in university research remains far less secure than it should be – actively undermined by people like the 45th US President Donald Trump, who in May 2020 dismissed one of the world’s most respected universities, Columbia University, as a “disgraceful institution” after it published research suggesting the poor US response to the pandemic had cost lives.
In France, a survey by the National Political Science Foundation found that the French public actually lost confidence in scientists during the pandemic, as frustration and confusion around lock-downs mounted.
In the UK, The Times newspaper published a leader item in June 2020 which suggested that the closure, though bankruptcy, of some UK universities would not be “particularly regrettable”.
But I imagine universities whose demise would be an obvious matter of profound and widespread regret.
These are thriving universities that are fully appreciated, highly valued and properly supported – by their local communities, the wider taxpaying public, and by our political leaders.
These universities are truly open to talent. Access is based on students’ future potential, not the prior attainment that can be so heavily shaped by privilege. Admission is driven by ability, not ability to pay.
These universities have an inclusive curriculum, and clear and robust policies enabling true equality of opportunity for all students and staff. The diversity of their campus community, and notably their leadership team, demonstrates this.
These universities have truly em-braced their local communities. Despite a global footprint, they understand the needs of their immediate neighbours, welcoming them onto a campus designed to be porous and offering their facilities and resources to all. They provide solid and secure employment for locals, their students volunteer in the community, their research has global impact, but is informed by local issues.
These universities have an excellent communications culture. They are not shy to show-off and champion the great work they are doing. They embrace a diverse, multi-media communication strategy to ensure that they reach and engage all members of society – including those who have not personally benefited from a higher education but who understand that they have benefitted in so many ways from the work of their local university.
They are full of academics who are proud to be public intellectuals, media-friendly advocates and ambassadors, who help us all celebrate the profound public good of our universities.
Phil Baty is an international authority on university performance and strategy, with more than 23 years of experience in global higher education, including a decade as Editor of the prestigious Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings and its derivative analyses. He is an award-winning journalist and editor, a sought-after speaker and commentator and the creator of the prestigious THE World Academic Summit. He tweets from @Phil_Baty