IMAGINE that the present crisis generated by the disruption caused by COVID-19 resulted not simply in more creative and imaginative use of communications technology and distance learning, but stimulated thoughts on “what universities should really be there for in tomorrow’s world”. IMAGINE it also led to a radical re-focus and re-organisation, which handed responsibility and accountability to universities for the preparation of young people for a lifetime of work, rather than preparing them to gain grades in examinations and assessments. IMAGINE it extended university activities to support more mature ‘students’ professionally, supporting them to revitalise themselves for a new life – a second professional life. IMAGINE at the same time, that the time, energy and budgets currently spent on research contributing more to the generation of new knowledge of real value to humankind, rather than for the professional progress of academics recorded in published papers that nobody reads, as a means to climb the greasy pole of academic career progression.
IMAGINE universities with fewer Deans and smaller, less hierarchical management structures and with more power and influence delegated to students and alumni. Also IMAGINE the engagement of many more practitioners – “pracademics” – those mature individuals with achievements and practical experience – sharing knowledge with the next generation of citizens of the world. IMAGINE more students undertaking foreign semesters and internships and participating in curriculum development. IMAGINE an acceleration in “the curricularisation of new knowledge” – at a time when technological progress outstrips the ability for university teaching to stay current – e.g. digital progress through artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“IMAGINE real and continuous progress in the commercialisation of research and increased effectiveness in the connectedness of universities to the real world where things happen.”
Einstein proposed – “IMAGINATION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN KNOWLEDGE” – “Knowledge is limited”, he said – “Imagination encircles the world”. He also strongly advised –“Learn from yesterday, live for today and hope for tomorrow – but never stop asking the questions”. I don’t know of any university that offers graduate courses in imagination – although more and more are focussing on innovation – which is encouraging. Continue to IMAGINE then that more universities become established based on models similar to the Aalto experiment (now much more than experimental) successfully implemented in Finland, which broke down barriers between Arts, Humanities and Science and Technology.
IMAGINE a greater acceptance and understanding of the importance, for example of design and design thinking – transcending barriers between faculties and functions and benefitting subjects and interests diverse and varied.
IMAGINATION requires divesting convention, structure and comfort. Bringing the profound changes possible to the future role, purpose and success of universities requires the particularly difficult conversion of those with policy, decision and financial power in governments to sanction and support disruptive change. This remains a huge challenge indeed considering just how many governments have failed to cope with the COVID-19 crisis at all adequately. And yet – universities are in a potentially powerful position. They are ideally positioned to lead imaginative change and, through practice, articulate reporting and presentation, show what energy and power may be released and channelled to accelerate the development and empowerment of next generations of world citizens.
I am indeed a dreamer – and will not give up the vision of a world emerging devoid of borders in terms of intellectual connectedness and “brain circulation” – knowledge transfer on a grand scale. I have before me – on the wall and framed, the words spoken by George Bernard Shaw to the young man who was assailing him with vacuous questions. “Stop young man” it is reported he said – “You look at things and ask why? But I dream of things that never were – and ask WHY NOT” Put crudely – to enable my IM-AGINE piece to become reality – a large number of those with “yes but…” mindsets will need to be replaced by ‘WHY NOT’ people. Food for thought I hope!
Professor Alan Barrell (DBA., FRSA.) has worked in Health Care and Medical Research, as Chairman and CEO of large multinational companies and smaller technology start-ups. He has Professorships in European and Chinese Universities, has raised and managed a Venture Capital Fund, is a Business Angel Investor and Trustee of charities. He has been honoured with The Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion in the UK and with membership as Knight First Class of the Order of the White Rose of Finland for services to Education.