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In 25 years, when we look back to the decisions we make now, what directions might we wish universities had taken in 2012? Jack Kenward FRSA argues that RSA Fellows can make an independent and distinctive contribution to this debate.

Now as much as ever, universities are the subject of public debate. While issues like open access to academic research are under examination, policy and public discourse tends to focus on important, if narrow, issues such as access and funding for undergraduate higher education, and graduate employment. There is, however, a wider question of the purpose of universities: what should they be for? One view, set out in the recent Wilson Review of University-Business Interaction, is of universities “firmly at the heart of the economy, collaborating with business and government in generating the wealth that is necessary for a healthy and prosperous society”. Taking another view, in his recent book and speech at the RSA, Stefan Collini talks of “aspirations and ideals that go beyond any form of economic return.”

These views need not be exclusive. A recent RSA South Central event on the future of universities reflected on these debates and the diversity of university aims, whether being ‘business facing’, ‘widening participation’, or ‘contributing to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence’. Individual universities, whether chartered or higher education corporations, engage in highly diverse activities, funded both publicly and privately in complex and dynamic configurations. Underpinning these debates are questions about the relationships and interactions between private benefits for individual students or research sponsors, and the contribution to the public good.

We need to recognise that, as Collini puts it, “the answers do not depend just on the interests of the current generation” but are “implicitly governed by [their] relation to the future”. Taking this lead – looking at the present as if from the future –  may help us resolve current debates and determine the best directions to take.

Of course, we cannot know the future. We cannot, for example, predict the impact of university development globally and how things will change as a result of initiatives such as China’s well-advanced Project 985, which seeks to build “first-rate universities of international advanced level” (though reflecting on the possible consequences of China moving from manufacturing boom to knowledge economy might be worthwhile).

Nor can we set boundaries for the development of universities online, as we move from the ‘information age’ to the ‘network society’. I recall a conference in the mid-90s, where Lord Young of Dartington enthused that the web at last provided an interactive technology to enable the Open University to deliver on its vision. To date, much online supply has been relatively limited in scope; for the most part it is built on the infrastructure of conventional academic careers in physical universities, and set in the context of institutional assessment and accreditation. But this is changing – as are student expectations – bringing demand for highest quality interactive materials and real-time communication with tutors.

But there is also a deeper sense in which we cannot predict the future, which has even greater relevance to debates around universities: we cannot in principle anticipate specific outcomes of either research or higher education. In 1952 the structure of DNA was a discovery waiting to happen, but the consequences could not have been foreseen. In 1987, few would have predicted that CERN, funded for nuclear research, would construct a communication tool with as profound and worldwide an impact as the web. It is equally difficult to predict specific outcomes from higher education, the more so in a period of such rapid change in work and society.

So ‘looking back from the future’ forces us to acknowledge uncertainty. But it remains possible to articulate values and pursue aims: for example, we might try to sustain a diversity of environments that foster our capability for discovery: in research, in higher education and as people.

As the head of a university institute supported by a large UK charity once said to me: “I’m the Director of the Biomedical Research Centre, which has about 30 principal investigators and maybe a 100 people in all. Not that I tell anyone what to do, I just try to create the conditions for them to succeed.” In both research and higher education, aiming to create and sustain the conditions for success perhaps gives us the context we need for fruitful discussions of access and accreditation, accountability and autonomy, governance and funding.

With our concerns in society, citizenship, enterprise, and education, RSA Fellows can bring independent and distinctive contributions to the debate. With this in mind, a group of Fellows are setting up an RSA Social Network 'Future Universities’ Group, with invited contributions. This will enable Fellows to develop questions and discussion with the aim of defining and shaping an RSA Future Universities project.

Jack Kenward works with universities on their governance and management, organisation and administration.


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