New model needed for university of future

 

If universities did not exist, would we invent what we have now? This is no idle question, but one forced on us by massive change in the educational environment. Here are four ways in which the landscape for universities is radically changing:

The State is now the university's paymaster.

What is taught has become a matter of legitimate interest to the State. As it carries more of the cost, the State tends to move beyond a generalised feeling that all education is a good thing. It becomes more specific in the tunes it wishes to pay the piper for.

Disciplines with immediate relevance to the national economy get priority; those without find it harder to gain favour. Some disciplines at the heart of a university's mission, in particular those that foster independent thought and speculation, may be seen as low-priority, or even subversive. Critical thought may be valued less than the simple acquisition of skills.

So far both State and universities have failed to resolve this tension at the level of principle, confining their efforts to annual skirmishes over spending allocations.

What model would reflect the State's dominant role as paymaster, while allowing a university to pursue its own priorities? I believe such a model must be based on a belief that the value of universities is wider than a purely economic one. But it is up to universities not only to articulate that view but also to persuade society to adopt it. Meanwhile, time is on the side of the State, since it can (and often does) get its way by attrition over a succession of spending cycles.

Universities must now be for all.

Throughout their history universities have served only a social elite, ignoring all but the relatively well-off. What we are talking about now is removing the element of social exclusion that has always been a part of university tradition, though not a part we tend to harp on very much. The future university must be for all. Making that happen raises issues that go beyond bricks, mortar and cash.

For instance, it creates the need for learning that is accessible to a universal student population. Up to now, universities could restrict their entry to those who had shown themselves skilled in a particular way of learning; a way that is perfectly legitimate but not suited to everyone's abilities.

People learn in different ways, but universities do not yet reflect the full spectrum of those ways. Our tradition has been based on a particular methodology of learning, rather than on a focus on intellectual capacity per se.

On the other hand, universities have also traditionally been an ultimate fount of excellence for a community's asset base. Only a fool would claim excellence for everything in a university. But universities do create the possibility of excellence, and it seems to me vital that this is preserved.

Is a "haven for excellence" compatible with universal access? If not, the spectre looms of two separate institutions each pursuing very different goals. That would discard much of what a university should be about.

I believe both objectives are attainable within the same body. I particularly resist the view that universal access must mean "dumbing down". After all, in their traditional role of catering for the well-off, universities have always accommodated both the brilliant and the not-so-brilliant.

But the tension between universal access and the university as a fount of excellence is real. It must be addressed.

The university's walls are now getting in the way.

Central to the old idea of the university was separation from the world outside, symbolised by its physical walls. This separation is now a hindrance to the academic agenda.

For example, work experience is increasingly integral to learning, drawing together the worlds of theory and practice. Equally, the boundary between university research and entrepreneurial activity needs to be knocked down and bridges built instead.

Above all, today's university should be not an inward-looking repository of old knowledge but a portal facing outwards to a world of dynamic information, accessed instantly. This portal should serve a wider community than just the university itself.

And indeed, learning need no longer be within the walls at all. With the inter-activity of modern telecoms, distance learning is an idea whose time has finally come.

Within the university, too, walls get in the way of the future. Rigid boundaries between disciplines can inhibit the progress of knowledge. Some of the most exciting developments now take place where disciplines overlap. Another division fast losing relevance is that between research and undergraduate teaching. With the body of knowledge changing so fast, the need is to integrate these activities where possible.

Is there a need - I suggest there is - to create a structure that reflects the new needs and the new possibilities? A university without walls, internal or external?

The educational time-frame has shifted.

Universities have always been "up-front loaders". Students came directly from school, got their packet of knowledge, and departed into adult life to apply it. This model is fast becoming irrelevant to society's emerging needs.

True, we have increased the number of mature students and put more resources into distance learning. But universities are still structured to regard these as mere side-shows.

What should happen when these needs become mainstream? When it becomes exceptional to go direct from school to university? When it becomes exceptional to study in one continuous stream, and more the norm to do it in instalments, either in between or in tandem with pursuing a career?

Will we still structure universities for a norm that no longer applies?

What are the fundamentals?

To confront these changes effectively, we need to ask:

What, in the most fundamental sense, are universities trying to do?

In responding to the myriad changes in the environment, are universities staying true to the core reasons for their very existence?

Do we need to find new ways, and new structures, to serve those reasons in the future?

Do we even need to find new reasons for our existence, to reflect fully the era in which we live?

Do universities, as we traditionally know them, have any useful future?

Is the best way forward to evolve from what we have now? Or is it to discard that model and create a totally new one for the radically different conditions the world faces now?

Our first step should be to achieve consensus, inside and outside the academic world, on the values that should drive universities. The second step is to reinvent the university for the new age, based firmly on a foundation of those values.

Let me help towards that first step by proposing five basic academic values.

First, I suggest the most fundamental task of universities should be the development of critical minds.

This runs counter to the increasingly pervasive view that education should mainly be about acquiring specific skills, just as it does to the traditional academic view that universities are about pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Skills are incomplete without the intellectual capacity to refine, adapt and build on them. And the pursuit of knowledge will flow automatically, if we produce the critical minds to do the pursuing.

Next I would place the commitment to push back the frontiers of knowledge.

Many people, particularly those of the paymaster variety, think only of what already exists; their view of knowledge and human potential is essentially static. This leads to seeing educational institutions as mere passers-along of the supposed tablets of stone.

It is a fundamental academic value that knowledge is dynamic and open-ended. That this value is under threat is shown by the perennial difficulty of getting adequate funding for research.

Third, and perhaps surprisingly to some, I suggest it is a desirable value that the university is an engine of economic development.

Academics have always been shy of "relevance", like aristocrats turning up their noses at anything smacking of "trade". In my view, making an economic contribution is fundamental to academic activity. It is not all we do, but it is a part of it.

Adopting this value could help, paradoxically, towards acceptance of the idea that the university is more than economically valuable. It has a wider and higher value as well.

Fourth, I suggest it is a basic academic value to be the conscience of society.

The university should be the primary institution in society that constantly queries our assumptions. It should also be a primary resource for providing society with a range of alternative options to pursue. And where appropriate, the university in its own actions should provide society with a lead.

No area of activity or of thought should be off-limits. The university's constructive questioning role should extend to politics, to ethics, to social organisation and income distribution, to the myriad issues around freedom, equality and human rights.

I believe this activist, pathfinder role should be seen by all academics as fundamental to the university's role, not one that is engaged in peripherally or occasionally.

Fifth, this role as society's conscience leads directly to another value: autonomy.

The tradition of academic autonomy is now widely misunderstood, both outside the university (where it can be seen as a refusal to be accountable), and within the academic community itself (where it can be used to justify a refusal to co-operate in pursuit of a common interest).

In my view, the rationale for academic autonomy is entirely bound up with the role of being the conscience of society. If universities do not pursue that role, they lose the justification to claim autonomy. But equally, if universities do fulfil that role, they must be genuinely independent of the pressures within society. They should not muzzle themselves because they fear offending the powers that be. Neither should they tailor what they say to the agenda of their paymasters.

A real danger facing our education system is that it will respond in a piecemeal way to the challenge of change, and in doing so drift away from its fundamentals.

I suggest that a revisiting by society of the values we attach to higher education is the best way to ensure that in the 21st century we get the kind of university most suited to our needs.

Dr Daniel O'Hare is president of Dublin City University and current chairman of the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities. This article is based on his address to the 1998 International Conference on the Improvement of University Teaching