Universities must adapt to maintain public legitimacy in a changing society

Universities must adapt to maintain public legitimacy in a changing society


By Libby Hackett

Do we need to rethink the civic role of universities? The Fourth Industrial Revolution is causing a tectonic shift in the role of all universities. As with every other industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 is fundamentally shifting how we live, communicate and relate to each other, and what we value. Our social norms are shifting. And not just in the West.

In transcending societal boundaries, movements formed on social media platforms have brought into question the role of our long-standing civic institutions, including universities. In an information-driven, highly-individualised digital world, these institutions can feel slow and out-dated, or even worse, distrusted, irrelevant and elitist – as can their leaders. Universities in the UK and Australia have experienced this shift in public and political opinion for the past decade.

Over centuries universities have demonstrated their ability to adapt to and often to lead political, social and economic reform. Looking forward, how can universities best engage with and serve changing communities? How can they maintain their legitimacy across a wider range of the population? These are questions the sector has been asking itself.

To identify solutions, we need to look beyond the technical detail of the digital revolution itself and better understand its wide-ranging impact on society and future generations.

From our experience working with universities in Australia, the UK and North America, three elements of this Fourth Industrial Revolution particularly impact universities:

  1. Increased international mobility and economic global connectedness
  2. Academic learning in a post-truth, or filtered-truth, world
  3. The different values and behaviours of new generations of learners.

The world is more closely connected than ever before

Digital platforms have radically shrunk the world through increasing economic connectedness, reducing boundaries for mobility and facilitating the global exchange of ideas.

Universities have benefited intellectually and financially from a more global workforce, a more mobile student population and more opportunities for international collaborations in research. For the growing number of global citizens, this is a positive development. And we know it is only through genuine global partnership that universities will tackle our toughest challenges, such as environmental sustainability, poverty and security.

The idea that universities can be both globally engaged and locally rooted has been central for the past decade or more to the concept of universities as anchor institutions. But are they getting this balance right? How well are they connecting with local communities who are struggling to adapt to the global economy and the movement of people it brings? How relevant are they to people who prefer to look for national rather than international solutions to questions of employment and production, valuing national security, identity and autonomy over an elusive a promise of global prosperity?

For all the many public and economic benefits delivered by universities, they are also often considered an asset class of intellectual and social capital, which excludes those who do not benefit from these assets. How can universities better connect with the many people who do not relate to this vision of a global economic future? How can they play a role in protecting against the increased polarisation of political opinion?

Universities have always played a significant role in the communities, cities and societies they serve – and this has not changed. The question is how to connect and engage. Nous has supported universities to transform neighbourhoods and communities through developing shared spaces and through more radical engagement strategies.

Nous was also recently involved in two conferences on the subject – the Engagement Australia Conference in Brisbane and the Global University Engagement Summit in Manchester. These events reinforced the importance of human-centred design enabling universities to engage with broader and more diverse communities.

We are living in a filtered-truth world

Australia and the UK may not be experiencing the same culture of offence among new generations of students as the US, but we are experiencing the same trend toward the narrowing and hardening of opinions. The nature of academic learning and debate offers an important counter to this trend.

The democratisation of communication, including through social media, has given voice to a greater diversity of views but in parallel we have seen a consolidation of often intolerant positions. Many are familiar with self-reinforcing communities on social media, for whom a filter means they experience the world through a particular lens.

Online platforms have a powerful ability to reinforce our preferences with like-minded content, creating not so much a post-truth world as a filtered-truth world. When added to the fear of social media opprobrium held by many young people, you can see how these normative experiences can harden opinions. Political discourse has demonstrated that this trend is by no means limited to the US and could become more amplified on our university campuses over the next decade.

The method of academic debate is critical. Universities have always supported students to debate and to disagree well, to hear ‘offensive’ views without feeling the need to shut them down. Academic learning supports listening to a range of views for the purpose of learning, as opposed to listening in order to respond with a pre-existing view.

Universities continue to support students to disagree – and to learn from these experiences. They must continue to demonstrate the value of open-mindedness, and be clear about the rewards and challenges this brings. In a fast-pace, digital world, universities are uniquely capable of creating an environment that permits people to disconnect, unplug, think, share, experience and learn from others.

Universities are increasingly engaging students in their decisions and governance. This is a positive development, but we must be mindful of the need to include not just existing students – most of whom are comfortable with a globally-connected future – but also those who have a different perspective.

New generations of learners have different values

Millennials and those in Generation Z, who between them represent a significant new cohort on campuses, are highly driven by values. They care about sustainability, environmental change, identity, freedom of expression and autonomy, values that align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

To assume these generations’ distrust of institutions and social norms is the ill-informed rebellion of a spoiled and entitled generation is deeply mistaken. They have observed their parents working long hours, stuck on the treadmill of materialism, and do not want to make the same mistakes. They see the legacy of previous generations as environmental destruction and inequality of wealth and access, and want to define their lives differently, rooted in purpose and making a positive difference on issues they care about.

What does this mean for universities? They need to more visibly engage with the issues that are critical to the generations they serve, and the ones to come, otherwise they risk being seen as part of the problem.

Nous has supported universities to take a multi-disciplinary approach to research and teaching in order to engage with these complex challenges. Nous has also supported major reforms to curriculum architecture – ensuring offers stay relevant and equip graduates to navigate and solve problems, increasing their engagement in multi-disciplinary learning and research.

The sector has thought a lot about how to prepare graduates for a changing work environment. But universities do not, and never have, merely performed a utilitarian function of preparing people for work. Universities’ value is that they prepare people to succeed in life – to be ‘world-ready’ not just ‘job-ready’. They equip people to navigate uncertainty; to debate and reason with those who do not share their views; to turn their concerns about the world around them into actions; and to embrace and learn from diversity of opinion, belief and purpose.

This is where universities are right to focus their energy and adapt their curriculum. Nous is working with universities to explore new ways to engage and connect, reframing their relevance for future generations.

Get in touch to discuss how we can work with your university to adapt to a changing world.

Written by Libby Hackett during her time as a Principal at Nous.

Published on 26 September 2019