For centuries, universities have been the hallmark of civilized societies. Places of learning, hives of research, the proud culmination of the age of enlightenment, the undeniable proof of the merit of intellectual pursuit, and the collective endeavor of generations of scholars who have exercised well-honed critical skills to offer comments on decisions made by others, government or industry. Institutions for the people, certainly, but not much of the people. Learned commentators rather than actively engaged players. As revered as such bastions of knowledge have come to be, universities are increasingly expected to be accountable for their activities. Yet, as holders of discipline content, they underperform when compared to the plethora of information now available to all – and immediately- online. As sources of innovation, they struggle when compared to freer forming enterprise organized in fluid ecosystems that can assemble or disperse at will according to market needs. As educators, they fail when promulgating a didactic form of teaching that is not only overly prescriptive, but also bereft of learner centricity and hesitate to deliver ‘just-in-time-education’ to the growing cohort of learners seeking to customize their education journey.
Is this, then, an existential moment for universities? Could any society evolve further without them? Could advanced economies contemplate their complete abandon? Paradoxically, the answer probably rests with universities themselves.
“Should they continue to define their role through the prism of nostalgia and reminiscence, they are surely destined to self-inflicted obsolescence.”
But there is an alternative path. Universities could and should become catalysts of innovation and effective builders of the human capital needed for Industry 4.0. They should combine, as no other Institutions ever could, the nation-building blocks of innovation, entrepreneurship and human skills. They should do so by co-creating with learners and industry the sort of curriculum and research projects that speak to the future rather than the past. Universities are indeed quite uniquely poised to become genuine future makers, and should be universally recognized as valued and indispensable parts of society. Only universities can truly unlock the full potential of combining technology, based on strong fundamental and often STEM-related knowledge, with practical applications and skills. And it is precisely because universities are best placed to marry knowledge with know-how, to overlay the digital with the human and weave the interface between people and machine, that they can harvest the power of technology for the betterment of mankind.
In order to claim the status of indispensable contributors to society, however, universities must first earn the social license many of them have long taken for granted. To wit, the recent pandemic: Universities have offered science and empirical findings and those governments that listened to the advice did immeasurably better than those who chose to ignore it. But universities need to do more than give advice on a problem, they must play an active part in implementing solutions. In addition to treatments or vaccines developed in their labs, they must offer online professional development for the unprecedented number of jobless individuals whose livelihood now depends on acquiring new skills in a world irremediably changed. And beyond the advice offered during the pandemic, as valuable as it has been, it is the willingness of universities to engage actively in the recovery, their unique capacity to assist in the reconstruction of a new digital economy and society that will be the test of universities, and the undeniable proof of their lasting relevance.
It is, therefore, precisely because universities can influence and improve the future that they should be cherished by their communities. The indispensable university is one without which no society could flourish.
Professor Pascale Quester is Vice-Chancellor and President of Swinburne University of Technology. A respected leader in the Australian Higher Education sector for over 2 decades, she holds degrees from her native France, the USA and New Zealand and is a highly cited researcher in consumer behaviour (H-index 43). A knight of the French National Order of Mérite and a Professeur des Universités, she is also Professor Emerita from the University of Adelaide, a distinguished Fellow of the Australian New Zealand Marketing Academy and the 2020 recipient of a career award by the American Marketing Association.