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The Civic University: Confronting Future Challenges

by John Goddard

Over the next 20 years universities will be confronted by unprecedented political and technological drivers for change coming from within and outside the higher education sector.

The most successful universities will be those that adapt their institutional structures to engage constructively through teaching and research with global societal challenges, notably those identified in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This will involve universities working in new ways with business, government and civil society at both global and local levels and becoming truly civic institutions. The challenge for universities has been clearly set out in the latest report1 from the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI), which highlights the twin roles of universities:

  1. First, through education, research and innovation they contribute to the strategic positioning of nations, regions and cities who are in the relentless process of global competition.
  2. Second, they create and disseminate knowledge urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient future. The pre-eminent universities in 2040 will be those that successfully balance their roles as players in the highly competitive economic development and higher education marketplace with their responsibilities to civil society globally and locally. This will be most transparent in the way that the university acts as an urban ‘anchor institution’, working with business, government and citizens in the city in which it is located, not least as many of the SDGs have strong local resonances. This will be most transparent in the way that the university acts as an urban ‘anchor institution’, working with business, government and citizens in the city in which it is located, not least as many of the SDGs have strong local resonances. Contributing to societal innovation will be the key to achieving this.

The European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC) has highlighted the need to move from a supply side technology driven model of innovation to one that involves co-production of knowledge with business and citizens. It notes that: Our innovation economy is not a Roman aqueduct but a muddy pond … it requires all actors, corporate, academic, civic and political” … “Focus on People, Places and Processes”. What do such perspectives mean for how universities organise themselves? In its recent report to the European Council on a Renewed Agenda for Higher Education, DG Education and Culture has noted: “Higher education institutions are increasingly giving more emphasis to their wider social responsibility to the communities in which they are located.

The notion of the ‘civic university’ is sometimes used to characterise institutional strategies that aim to promote mutually beneficial engagement between the community, region and the university”.

In the ‘civic’ university, there is no perception of a core or periphery – engagement is seen as embedded and relevant to other areas of activity. There are strong overlaps between the three domains. Where teaching and engagement overlap there will be effective outreach activities linked to student recruitment (widening participation to non-traditional cohorts including mature students and worker-learners) and augmenting the student experience (internship, work-based learning, community work, volunteering). Where teaching and research overlap there will be enhancements to both, with teaching becoming more meaningful and linked to ‘real world’ issues, while research benefits from the results of applied and relevant coursework. The overlap between research and engagement will result in non-academic, socio-economic impacts, as researchers work collaboratively with non-academic partners to find solutions to specific needs and challenges in the wider world. This in turn helps inform further research by raising new questions and providing insights that would not be revealed from academic research alone. Students become more engaged in their own learning as they gain enhanced critical skills whilst bringing evidence to bear on understanding and seeking to resolve societal challenges. When all three areas overlap the university will be engaged in transformative, demand led actions, and in this space its impact will be greater than the sum of each activity alone.

Finally, there is a ‘soft’ boundary between the academy and society at large, which will shift constantly as the university responds to new demands and existing collaborations reach their natural conclusion. In the civic university, institutional management and leadership are focused on creating an enabling environment for success at all levels. Staff are motivated and incentivised to engage with society as these activities are well resourced, supported and there are clear rewards for success. This ensures that lessons and insights from societal interactions will be brought back across the ‘soft’ boundary and used to create improvements in teaching and research. Such universities will be at the pinnacle of European higher education landscape in 2040.

This is an extract from ‘The Future of Teaching Report: Global Edition’

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How would you like to see RMIT contribute to a more sustainable world?

September 21, 2020

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It would be great if the student practical projects are geared to address the worlds wicked problems providing potential solutions to sustainability or poverty....

Tania H.

16 Mar, 2021
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