2016 was, for various reasons, considered to be a year of political shocks. While the consequences, both positive and negative, are ongoing, the key to the development and survival of universities is in the way they respond to the challenges and opportunities thrown up by these developments, and to make the necessary adaptations. For sure, international collaboration is central to the development of a strategy to meet the challenges of the future, but it is this, together with the execution of short, medium and long-term plans at home that will determine the success of universities in the long run. Below are some potential areas that could be explored.
Research, teaching and “other”
The role of the university has always been to disseminate knowledge through educating others, primarily students, to prepare them for the future. While this remains core aim of any university, we can see that other dimensions have been added to the mix in recent times. One of the main questions facing universities now is what constitutes the “other” aim of its institution? Does this mean that it has an international mission? Does it actively seek to undertake community engagement initiatives? Does it seek to develop closer links with business? Indeed, it could be a combination of all these aspects. Nevertheless, knowing what constitutes the “other”, and working to cultivate it will be an essential part of planning for the future development of the institution.
This is often regarded as a major part of any future strategy. Despite the pushback against globalization, it would appear that it is unlikely, especially in terms of educational establishments, that there would be any sense in erecting borders preventing the cross-fertilization of research, or the introduction of international students that serve to maintain a diverse student body and society. The question going forward is largely about how this will manifest itself. It is likely that Asia, especially China, is likely to continue as a very important market for British universities seeking to increase income streams and attract students, although the increasing appeal of the USA and Canada for these students is something that planners need to bear in mind, and to continue exploring ways of ensuring that Britain remains a desirable option for Asian students. In this respect, creative thinking will be necessary not only to seek cooperation across departments, but across international borders.
Clearly defining the value of a university education
Owing to several social and political changes, there are now more questions being asked about the perceived value of a university education. For many, ‘value’ is often defined by the career trajectory of graduates, although in many ways, this metric can be too simplistic. For example, some graduates choose to pursue careers that will make them happy (but not necessarily make a lot of money) whereas others, graduating from courses that naturally lend themselves to a specific career may not experience success immediately owing to the strength of competition in that particular field. Yet one of the major issues for British universities is the perception that a university education does not adequately prepare graduates for life in the world of work. They may be academically skilled, but they lack other skills, such as time management and organizational skills required by the workplace. In this area, it is possible that British universities could look at the initiatives developed by some American universities, where a new model of global engagement has been developed. Here, campuses have been constructed next to high-tech industries – a move that is particularly beneficial for students researching in STEM subjects. This has also helped to encourage private companies to invest in universities through the provision of apprenticeships and relationships that would improve the employment of students after graduation. However, in Britain, there is understandable concern about introducing private companies, with a focus on profit, into the university environment.
Community engagement and defining the value of research to wider society
For researchers in STEM subjects, this has not been as difficult a task as that for those researching in the humanities. STEM subjects often have a direct correlation with social and scientific development. For example, discoveries by a medical school can, when appropriately tested, be implemented as part of medical practice. This is not the same for humanities subjects where academics seem to be fighting an endless battle to justify the value of their research and push back against the claim that they inhabit an ivory tower with little knowledge of the real world. In the latter respect, there are a few things that can be done to highlight the relevance of research to society. For example, in disciplines such as History, links can be formed with local museums to showcase research in the form of public history. In addition, many disciplines would see their research transfer naturally to a television or radio programme. In this respect, it is important to think creatively to ensure that maximum exposure can be achieved, and that the value of research goes beyond the publication of an academic book or article and is of benefit to the wider community.
The world is facing a series of important and difficult challenges going forward. This impacts on all areas of society and universities are not immune from this. As economic austerity measures show very little sign of loosening, and the funding challenges for universities are likely to get harder, the importance of advanced planning and creative thinking will be more important than ever before. The challenge for university leaders will be to find solutions, many of which are global in nature, at a time when several governments are becoming more introspective and isolationist.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SearchHigher or Warwick Employment Group.