Over the next 20 years universities will be confronted by unprecedented political and technological drivers for change coming from within and outside the higher education sector. The most successful universities will be those that adapt their institutional structures to engage constructively through teaching and research with global societal challenges, notably those identified in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This will involve universities working in new ways with business, government and civil society at both global and local levels and becoming truly civic institutions.
The challenge for universities has been clearly set out in the latest report from the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI), which highlights the twin roles of universities: First, through education, research and innovation they contribute to the strategic positioning of nations, regions and cities who are in the relentless process of global competition. Second, they create and disseminate knowledge urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient future.
The pre-eminent universities in 2040 will be those that successfully balance their roles as players in the highly competitive economic development and higher education marketplace with their responsibilities to civil society globally and locally.
This will be most transparent in the way that the university acts as an urban ‘anchor institution’, working with business, government and citizens in the city in which it is located, not least as many of the SDGs have strong local resonances.
Contributing to societal innovation will be the key to achieving this. The European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC) has highlighted the need to move from a supply side technology driven model of innovation to one that involves co-production of knowledge with business and citizens. It notes that: “Our innovation economy is not a Roman aqueduct but a muddy pond … it requires all actors, corporate, academic, civic and political” … “Focus on People, Places and Processes.”
A similar discourse can be found in the Horizon 2020 theme of Science With and For Society and in the Rome Declaration on Responsible Research and Innovation adopted by the European Council in 2014. What do such perspectives mean for how universities organise themselves? In its recent report to the European Council on a Renewed Agenda for Higher Education, DG Education and Culture has noted:
“Higher education institutions are increasingly giving more emphasis to their wider social responsibility to the communities in which they are located. The notion of the ‘civic university’ is sometimes used to characterise institutional strategies that aim to promote mutually beneficial engagement between the community, region and the university.”
In our book The Civic University: The Policy and Leadership Challenges the civic university is described by reference to a way of organising universities that could be superseded by 2040. Such un-civic institutions are characterised by a leadership focus on separately maximising success in excellence (research), student outcomes (teaching) and engagement with enterprise/ society (third mission). As such, support and incentives for staff are driven by these priorities. Research or teaching activities with business and society is side-lined as ‘third mission’ and pushed to the periphery. Because university rankings focus predominantly on research and global positioning, they have helped drive a wedge between these different roles and responsibilities. There is therefore a ‘hard’ boundary created between the core – where activities are supported and enabled, and the periphery – where activities happen in spite of and not because of central support. Achievements that take place within this periphery tend to drift away as there are no mechanisms in place to embed learning or good practice back into the core.
In the ‘civic’ university, there is no perception of a core or periphery – engagement is seen as embedded and relevant to other areas of activity. There are strong overlaps between the three domains. Where teaching and engagement overlap there will be effective outreach activities linked to student recruitment (widening participation to non-traditional cohorts including mature students and worker-learners) and augmenting the student experience (internship, work-based learning, community work, volunteering). Where teaching and research overlap there will be enhancements to both, with teaching becoming more meaningful and linked to ‘real world’ issues, while research benefits from the results of applied and relevant coursework. The overlap between research and engagement will result in non-academic, socio-economic impacts, as researchers work collaboratively with non-academic partners to find solutions to specific needs and challenges in the wider world. This in turn helps inform further research by raising new questions and providing insights that would not be revealed from academic research alone. Students become more engaged in their own learning as they gain enhanced critical skills whilst bringing evidence to bear on understanding and seeking to resolve societal challenges. When all three areas overlap the university will be engaged in transformative, demand led actions, and in this space its impact will be greater than the sum of each activity alone.
Finally, there is a ‘soft’ boundary between the academy and society at large, which will shift constantly as the university responds to new demands and existing collaborations reach their natural conclusion. In the civic university, institutional management and leadership are focused on creating an enabling environment for success at all levels. Staff are motivated and incentivised to engage with society as these activities are well resourced, supported and there are clear rewards for success. This ensures that lessons and insights from societal interactions will be brought back across the ‘soft’ boundary and used to create improvements in teaching and research. Such universities will be at the pinnacle of European higher education landscape in 2040.
This article is part of The Future of Universities Thoughtbook initiative. If you would like to learn more about it or download your FREE book, please visit the official website of the initiative HERE.
John Goddard is Emeritus Professor and Special Advisor to the Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University. He founded and led the University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS) from 1977 to 1998. During this period, it was designated as a ‘centre of excellence’ by the UK Economic and Social Science Research Council. John translated his academic insights into the role of universities in city and regional development based on his research in CURDS into practice when appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor with special responsibility for the University’s city and regional engagement.
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