Dr Matthew Davies
Over the last year the climate crisis has inspired considerable public protest including civil disruption by Extinction Rebellion and the rejection of university courses by some students in order to dedicate themselves to climate action. These students challenged the lack of urgency to the climate crises in their courses and questioned universities’ ability to turn abstract curricula into practical action. In an XR social media post they essentially called for an education rebellion.
There are interesting, if unexpected, synergies here with successive UK governments taking universities to task for a failure to equip students with real-world skills that meet the demands of business and enterprise, often casting university attendance as a commodity for the privileged rather than meritocratic attainment.
These claims have further underpinned the commercialisation of HE, performance monitoring (including the teaching excellence framework), and other ills (short-term contracts, pension cuts, etc), culminating in recent strikes. While stemming from radically different political standpoints, both sets of criticism call for deeper situating of higher education within contemporary events, question its public value, and rehash tropes of the aloof academic in an ivory tower.
Covid-19 has however thrown HE-led science into the spotlight. Suddenly, camera-shy scientists and epidemic modellers are being called to act on the biggest threat to humanity in a generation. Virology labs sit at the heart of global attention while medical engineers work alongside Formula One teams to develop ventilators. While climate scientists may be feeling left out, Covid-19 has dramatically re-cast science as central to our crisis response, undermining some of the criticisms cast by XR students and politicians alike.
Yet, while Covid-19 marks an opportunity for universities to restate their public value, this rapid re-centering and influx of funding, albeit on the short-term, will not necessarily address the critics in full.
Nor will it necessarily secure universities’ finances or produce a clearer vision of public value without considerable re-casting from within. While commercialisation and burgeoning bureaucracies may be partly to blame, there is some truth in the claim that universities need to engage more actively in urgent social and environmental action. There is surely a need to move beyond analytic caution and to better balance core curricula with opportunities for students and lecturers alike to engage with contemporary moments.
I am not arguing for an end to pure and theoretical science – far from it. But it would seem reasonable that universities invest more in experimental units designed to pre-empt and act in real time. This would require a re-mixing of traditional units and stronger inter- and trans-disciplinarity and policy skills targeted at complex challenges.
Of course, universities do already do this and many teams are able to respond in this manner. But the bulk of departments remain arranged around disciplinary structures, lack expertise with non-academic partners, and are centred on core curricula. A National University Curriculum , which some have suggested, would entrench this conservatism further.
There are also structures within higher education that inhibit innovation and responsiveness. Current funding prioritises student numbers and the established disciplinary canon, making novel units harder to fund within core business plans and ensuring that innovative centres and junior research jobs are often based on time-limited grants; they’re valuable add-ons, but not necessarily core.
Similarly, the research excellence framework places premium on accumulative impact and time-consuming peer review. Both remain essential in proportions, but they also inhibit risk-taking, penalise important failures and null results, and down-grade applied work that may not meet peer review criteria.
While emphasis on impact is positive, framings of impact as post hoc dissemination of results into real-world applications can limit the ambition of blue-sky research (imposing unnecessary immediate impact requirements) while failing to fully encourage engagement as research design.
Indeed, funders may struggle with research design as impact, because it challenges research “objectivity” and entangles research and effect, making it harder to quantify “impact” from broader social, economic or natural changes. Put differently, preoccupations with impact aren’t so much with outcome per se but with clearly tracing a link between research and outcome. Consequently, it remains easier to “study” a community initiative than it is to “start” a community initiative. No wonder then that many in our communities see universities as distant.
Natural and social scientific research remains core, but we use research not as an ends, but rather to establish transformative partnerships with citizens, civil society, business and policymakers. This is embodied in our Prosperity Index (PI) that combines citizen-led metrics on quality of life as the first step in a programme of transformative action. The PI has been used to coalesce the London Prosperity Board (LPB) as a cross-sector partnership to design and evaluate policy interventions and has been endorsed by the London Legacy Development Corporation to assess the 2012 Olympic Games legacy.
We are engaged in similar research-action initiatives around the world, including in Kenya and Lebanon, in policy work on Universal Basic Services in the UK and the creation of the Fast Forward 2030 network for young entrepreneurs to encourage business for change.
Shifting the higher education mindset from research design to the design of transformative action will not be easy. This requires a shift from the idea of academics as experts with “beneficiaries” to academics as facilitators and partners in transformative projects.
It requires re-imagining social, economic and environmental impact as at the centre of universities’ activities rather than as engagement or dissemination add-ons. This process is just beginning, but the current crisis presents an opportunity for higher education to chart a new path between the extremes of rebellion and cautious commercialisation.
This article was originally published by The Times Higher Education
Image credit: Cole Keister on Unsplash
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