Covid demands a radical refocus on authentic local partnerships


Governments around the world are currently rolling out their largest vaccination programmes in a century. They are doing this at the same time as they roll out huge stimulus packages and continue to subsidise wages on a mass scale to keep industry and people afloat. It is a remarkable point in history.

All this is being done hand in hand with universities. The momentous experience of the past year has eloquently demonstrated the immense value of academic research and expertise to policymaking.

Now, as we look ahead to the post-pandemic era that we hope we are entering, there is a huge task ahead in restarting and repositioning economies and tackling the series of global challenges, such as climate change, that will reach into communities and impact the lives of individuals throughout the rest of the century.

Universities are effectively a microcosm of the wider societies in which they are embedded. As such, our responsibilities to those societies are inbuilt. Yet we – especially in research-intensive institutions – have not always focused on them as clearly as we should.

While we don’t know yet is whether interventionist governing will begin and end with Covid-19, it is clear that the era of the interventionist university must endure. The question is where those interventions should be focused.

As the pandemic swept through every nation almost without exception, national governments became more inwardly focused, concentrating their efforts on their own national responses. This challenges us in universities to reflect on our own commitments. Where do we want to make the greatest impact? With whom do our greatest responsibilities lie? Is this duty burdensome and must we redefine our role to manage expectations?

Universities must listen even more closely to the people in their own communities to identify the issues they face and determine the research, teaching and learning responses they can make. I am talking about deep, genuine, authentic partnerships. This is how we can truly have impact. We must challenge ourselves to rethink how such deep partnerships should manifest themselves. I see the possibility of them extending to university governance, for instance.

When I reflect on our inventory of research at the University of Auckland, I can readily see the impact it has had and continues to have on our communities. But what is interesting is that in our quest to be global, many of us have stopped telling the stories of our local impact. And our communities, in turn, have lost sight of the day-to-day impact we make.

Yet an enhanced local focus should not and must not imply a severing of global connections. It is my view that the local impacts we make will be applicable in communities around the world – and this wider impact will be facilitated by nurturing and leveraging our international university networks.

We articulate our responsibilities and duties in our core documents. At Auckland, 2020 saw us not only responding to the pandemic but also engaging across the university and with stakeholders to develop our Taumata Teitei: Vision 2030 and Strategic Plan 2025. It commits us to creating “globally transformative impacts through our distinctive strengths in world-leading research, scholarship, teaching and collaborative partnerships, inspired by our unique position in Aotearoa New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific.” It also defines the impact we seek in terms of te o Māori values, such as caring for those around us in the way we relate to each other, recognising the importance of kinship and lasting relationships, and valuing stewardship and guardianship and our relationship with the natural world.

To set boundaries around our quest to advance and explore knowledge would run counter to what universities represent. Yet as we consider how to make advances and maximise their impact in the 21st century, we must not be limited, either, by our own imaginations. Unreflecting commitment to current academic structures is not an option.

Universities have always adjusted as the societies around us have evolved over the centuries. But in 2021, we are not at a moment of evolution, but of radical change. We must meet this with our own radicalism. That means refocusing locally, partnering authentically, telling our stories and continuing to connect globally.

This will confirm in the eyes of our publics that we are their genuine partners in securing a sustainable future for them – and for everyone else.

Author Bio: Dawn Freshwater is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland.