Home | Top Stories | It’s time to reappraise the civic role of the modern university: opinion
Professor Jim Nyland. Photo: ACU

It’s time to reappraise the civic role of the modern university: opinion

There exists a long and renowned history of ‘civic universities’ in the Anglosphere, and they are often compared and contrasted with the ‘ancient’ universities, sometimes seen as the repositories of tradition with their rituals, old buildings and formal codes of dress and behaviour. These are unique cultures, very different from modern corporations, let alone globalised digital businesses.

The ancient universities looked inwards, both in their fortress-like medieval college buildings and in general with regard to the intellectual realm inside the walls. Such universities evoke a picture of timelessness, tradition and age-old customs for faculty members as well as the general public, which contrasts markedly with the leading role they often play in world university rankings and in research right across the academic spectrum.

The civic universities were by contrast founded ‘for the people’ and with the belief that local industries and trade would benefit along with local and regional life and culture.

Since the founding era of such universities at the turn of the 20th century, universities have changed enormously. Many are in fact now mega corporations, and some are truly global institutions in terms of research and teaching. Increasingly they are regulated and funded by government, and over recent times they have been increasingly monetised, subject to financial pressures to generate income and funds.

This has changed how universities behave and how they view themselves, and it forces consideration of just how the origins and defining purposes of such universities, alongside the many variants of ‘modern’ universities, are relevant to modern conditions.

In the modern era, the civic role of the university is not separable from the wider questions of engagement, since the notion of the ‘civic’ has itself transmogrified partially into the difficult-to-define notion of ‘the community’. That there was a wide belief in the original community-relevant purposes of the university cannot be denied, but the content and meaning of both universities and communities have shifted considerably. How can we define this relationship today?

Furthermore, how can we define and develop a curriculum which will be directly relevant to the great and demanding questions and challenges of the day which are existentially central to our future existence, such as climate change, global poverty and exclusion?

These are pressing issues, especially since the universities have largely given up the task of delivering adult liberal education and extramural studies.

There persists, however, a fundamental human need for knowledge and a social and communal need for intellectual life, for which universities are still uniquely equipped to respond. Professional scholarship must in these conditions look beyond the academy to an engagement which is truly modern. It must address the crucial issues and simultaneously educate the learners to be able to confront the difficult questions, rather than (potentially) turning them into ‘snowflakes’ who are incapable of facing a threat to their unchallenged selves and ideas.

Universities for students or citizens?
In many ways, and for many universities, it seems certain that the civic role is alive and well. In her recent keynote address to the Universities Australia conference held earlier this year Professor Mary Stuart, vice-chancellor of Lincoln University in the UK, reported that “many universities were able to articulate activities that clearly had an impact on the local area and people”, highlighting her 21st Century Lab, which was created in her university city, as but one example.

People are often rightly proud of their local university, and this is a worldwide phenomenon. On the other hand, there undoubtedly exists a well of ignorance about universities locally and otherwise and many people do not know what higher education does for local life and the community.

Quite how a university should benefit society and the community is a problem that has yet to be satisfactorily resolved.

While it is difficult to establish categoric functions and activities for universities apropos their civic roles and responsibilities, it is clear that public funding and subsidies carry certain obligations and expectations. What is more clear is that few universities have a strategic approach to the needs and population in their area regarding civic activity.

Far from being a strategic ‘third’ activity complementing teaching and research, the civic purpose of universities is unclear and often of only secondary importance in the hierarchy of functions headed by research and teaching fee-generating students.

There is a further yet related difficulty with the notion of civic purpose. What exactly does this mean? Whose purposes are legitimately acknowledged when a publicly funded and endowed, yet private, independent and autonomous institution declares its primary tasks as international excellence in research, scholarship and entrepreneurial development of its business studies faculty?

Given the charitable status and civic origins of most universities, are we not entitled to ask for more to be achieved in the civic realm?

Could there be greater support for government signalling the central significance of higher education for all in many communities which are literally dispossessed and poverty stricken, some of which are within a stone’s throw of the often grand civic university campuses?

Could there be local representation on university governing bodies and committees, and could a shared and collaborative model be supported and a more radical model of learning be proposed?

If a university is in some meaningful and strategic way to be part of its local and regional community, it must be willing to prioritise its relations with that locality. This means more than occupying a campus, more than being a custodian of buildings and artefacts, and more than token gestures of support for local events and people.

A genuine civic university should express its identity strategically through its core or discretionary activity so that local people can be active in the university and the institution itself can ensure greater contiguity between civic activity and public priorities.

The civic role of the university then remains to be reconstructed.

Not only is there a continuing demand and need for people to be educated as specialists in professions or in skills as practitioners, there is also a need for recognition that learning itself is productive and beneficial to individuals and to communities.

There are growing numbers of people who are participating in learning which would once have been described as ‘liberal learning’; these are lay intellectuals, or what Gramsci called “organic intellectuals”.

A society needs an educated population that goes beyond vocational specialisations.

The continuing growth of the ‘university of the third age’ – attracting grey armies and golden gurus alike – and the uptake of MOOCs worldwide, shows the forceful nature of learning needs which take place outside or beyond normal university provision and are testimony to the fact that people are motivated and spurred on by the challenges that surround them in life, no matter what stage of life they are at.

They want to read a classic text or learn the language they found beyond them at school, they are interested in the poet they never had sufficient time for in their working life, and they want to examine the social and political issues that surround them and that confront society.

Many are desperate to help in the challenges to our planet that climate change is bringing. Many wish to be part of the solution to the global migration, displacement and poverty that threaten our social lives.

Many want to challenge the pervasive inequality across nations and cultures that disfigures our current lives and threatens that of the new generations who will be dealing with it.

It can be argued that adult learning within its liberal and critical traditions and fostered by civically minded universities created access to intellectual life that would not have been possible for most people. In doing this, universities responded to a fundamental human need for knowledge and in going outside the walls, extramurally in the past, they contributed to social progress in a significant and unique way.

In modernity, they must surely review current practice and thinking about how they might renew this mission and meet the new challenges – some of which can be described as existential, for the planet and for the human population.

This new challenge is part of intellectual life which is uniquely both part of and separate from conventional university provision. It requires a new look at the curriculum; it requires a critical  curriculum that builds on the achievements of the past; and it requires a different form of engagement.

The content of a learning program or experience should produce engaged students who have a critical and questioning view of the world. Who could argue with this? Who could disagree that what we want for our students is what in the 19th century was called ‘associative learning’ – learning that asked the questions that mattered and made the connections between what we need and want to know?

How we can understand and grasp the true meaning of what we must learn?

Surely, we need knowledge and a curriculum which lets us grasp the connections between things and gives us the chance to choose to change. This is really useful knowledge that few would deny is needed.

The civic role reimagined
Reimagining the civic role of the university requires us to take a critical stance on the nature of university life through the specific prism of the curriculum, i.e. the organisation of learning and teaching.

It suggests that the need for reform of engagement across a broad spectrum of university activity and thinking requires a co-existential and consecutive reform of the curriculum as well. It suggests that the transformations of learning and its institutions that we have seen over perhaps four decades have not been matched by commensurate changes in what is learned and how it is taught.

Neither has it been matched by reformation of the ‘objects’ of learning and study, some of which include how we understand and study ourselves, especially in relation to the wicked issues. For our present existence and the future of our children, there can surely be no denying the significance of climate change and global warming; the life-threatening pollution of the air and the oceans upon which ultimately all life depends; the obscenity of poverty and early death of millions excluded from progress and affluence; the continuing impact of war and armaments production; and the impending conflagrations around population movement and migration.

These are the contexts and situations for which the current university curriculum is inadequate. These issues are not addressed centrally as a leitmotif, a guiding thread of concern and critique for all learners since all people are impacted by them. Which is not to suggest that all academic disciplines and boundaries must be abandoned and all existing curricula be instantly transformed into an issues curriculum. The realities of the world out there exist and transformations may have to be gradual, and as is frequently stated, we want our brain surgeons to know a great deal about brain surgery and our air pilots to know precisely how to fly the aeroplane we are using to get to the next university conference across the continent.

But it is not naive to ask that we renew the purposes of the university and just what sort of knowledge we want it to develop. The radical growth and transformation of mass higher education and the explosive power of the internet have both occurred within the last 20 years without a corresponding change in our approach to learning. It is an issue whose time has come.

The Engagement Australia Conference 2019 will take place in Brisbane on August 29–30. Its theme will be ‘The Role of the Civic University in Australia: The Making of a City Region’.

Professor Jim Nyland is the associate vice-chancellor at ACU Queensland and president of Engagement Australia.

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One comment

  1. Interesting thoughts. I find it hard to imagine, however, what else can be done at the tertiary education level about climate change. The problem seems to me one of political vote-harvesting and the worrying size of the population segment that is refractory to complex explanations, a failure of secondary education. Likewise, the obscenity of wealth inequality is a moral and political issue, but how to deal constructively with the culture shock of mass migration is something that could indeed be explored and communicated at the tertiary level.

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