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Emerging from crisis, the new power, post-pandemic university can make a lasting contribution to a just, sustainable and connected world.

Universities were forced to rediscover their social roots during the pandemic — an achievement to celebrate and consolidate. : Mikael Kristenson, Unsplash Universities were forced to rediscover their social roots during the pandemic — an achievement to celebrate and consolidate. : Mikael Kristenson, Unsplash

Emerging from crisis, the new power, post-pandemic university can make a lasting contribution to a just, sustainable and connected world.

By Jonathan Grant, affiliated researcher at the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge

Sometimes out of a crisis comes good. From the damage of the US civil war came the land grants to support a public university system.

Two centuries on, the pandemic offers universities an opportunity to transform.

Anglo-Western universities have lost their way. The social contract between universities and the societies they serve is broken, as outlined in The New Power University.

In the UK, universities are regularly critiqued as being ‘woke’ institutions failing to protect free speech, fleecing students and parents through extortionate tuition fees, whilst lining the pockets of senior staff through ‘fat cat’ salaries. This may be a caricature, but it is one that should be of great concern.

Just as the land-grant universities of the 19th century gave many students the opportunity of advancement, the post-pandemic landscape will present an opportunity for universities to evolve their missions.

In practice, as outlined in The New Power University, this means universities giving social responsibility equal standing alongside their education and research missions.

To do so would see them focus on the needs of communities through citizen science;  using new technologies with novel approaches to accreditation; and no longer being subsidised by the premium fees of international students.

They would also pay all staff a living wage, and reduce academic and student travel given its catastrophic carbon footprint.

Shifting to online education forced academics to modernise, even the long-time resistors. But the old paradigm that classroom teaching is superior is not trumped by  the current models of delivery by Zoom.

The design and delivery of online education requires a specific approach built around the digital classroom — pandemic Zoom lessons were often just analogue teaching delivered through digital means.

But if education can be delivered online to multiple students in different locations why would students have a one-to-one relationship with a university?

No longer geographically fixed, universities can offer transnational education where a student does one module from a university in Asia, another from Africa and a third from North America. Some of these modules could be online and others could be in-person. Students could ‘pick and mix’ modules to accumulate enough credits to get a degree. The harder question is: who would guarantee the veracity of their degree?

The current system of nation-based regulation sets up a massive barrier to truly transnational education. Universities are accredited on their inputs — the courses they offer — not their outcomes, the courses that students successfully pass.

With national barriers eroding, students could pay to sit exams (as opposed to pay to partake in courses) at different universities in different continents, building up a script of their credits as their passport to future employment.

Universities would continue to educate future generations, meeting their social purpose, but with a shifting business model including exam waivers for those who in the past could have qualified for scholarships and other forms of financial support.

The lessons of the pandemic can also help drive the future of research. The extraordinary involvement of universities in developing COVID vaccines, tests, and treatment is a once-in-a-generation testament to their innovative capacity.

Their single focus, combined with public funds, saw them address global challenges and develop solutions at a pace unforeseen since the Second World War.

Another lesson from the pandemic is the role of people in supporting research. At the height of the pandemic, more than four million people were logging their symptoms on a daily basis via the Zoe App, developed by researchers at King’s College London.

This data alerted authorities to new symptoms of COVID-19, such as the loss of smell and taste, and was a leading indicator by about five days to official data on the number of COVID-19 cases.

It is possible to mobilise people to provide, at scale, data that has value for researchers. Citizens can be made to feel they are contributing to the research endeavour, and hopefully more supportive of funding research in the long run.

The generational-long practice of subsidising research with international student fees is not sustainable. The crisis of the pandemic shone a light on the issue and now is the time for reform. Governments and other funders of research need to pay the full economic costs of that research, even if that means funding less activity.

Universities have shown they can lean in to a crisis.

The forthcoming book, Rupture and Response: How the Pandemic Challenged University Operations and Organisation, documents some of the heroic stories from universities in Australia, Sweden and the UK. These range from medical and nursing students volunteering on the front line, through to volunteering for food banks, as well as developing vaccines and providing testing facilities.

Universities were forced to (re)discover their social roots and support the communities within which they resided. This achievement needs to be celebrated, but also embedded in the future social purpose of universities as they navigate the post-pandemic world.

Closer to home, universities need to overcome wage challenges. Even today, in the UK, only 52 of 130 universities are accredited with paying a living wage.

This hypocrisy is amplified when you look at international travel — be it students taking six intercontinental flights a year or academics attending international conferences. This is not to suggest universities become even more inward looking, but to acknowledge the impact they are having on climate change and do something about it.

Just as the land-grant universities redefined higher education in the 19th century following the US civil war, perhaps the post-pandemic university can make a lasting contribution to a just, sustainable and connected world.  

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™. 

Jonathan Grant is Director of Different Angles, the author of the New Power University, previously Vice President and Vice Principal (Service), King’s College London, President of RAND Europe and Head of Policy at the Wellcome Trust. The author declared no conflicts of interest in relation to this article.

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