If universities really want to promote impact, they must work together


The catastrophic wildfires raging on the west coast of the US in the midst of a global pandemic have served to underscore the critical contribution that university research makes in responding to the grand challenges facing humanity.

Australia’s own bushfire crisis last summer saw many regional universities cement their value as “anchor institutions” in and for their ravaged communities, both during the conflagration and in recovery, driving and directly providing infrastructure, support and economic growth. Moreover, during the Covid-19 pandemic, university experts have been called upon to provide advice to government. Teachers and professional staff have rapidly moved educational delivery online and have further ramped up partnerships with industry and students to develop courses that respond to the pandemic’s acceleration of the future of work.

Even so, I think the modern role of higher education institutions should be conceptualised in a significantly more integrated way than via isolated examples of excellent contributions in one or another discrete area.

As students and staff in the UK start an anxious new academic year and colleagues in Australia face further job losses and policy upheaval, might it be possible to regain some sense of agency for our sector’s (mental) health and well-being? It is not new to say but, with trust in our institutions declining and public expressions of doubt about the value of university education, it is surely timely to look again at higher education’s intrinsically motivating discharge of its third mission and reimagine our civic role for the national and global common good.

We could, for instance, take responsibility for brokering a national consensus around integrated responses to the wicked complexity of our interrelated societal challenges. Many institutions would say they are doing this already, but I would suggest that, as a sector, we could do (much) better.

For example, in terms of what counts – and, therefore, is counted – the standard institutional view of the academic remit is to value quite discretely the three domains of research, learning and teaching, and service/engagement. When I was a deputy vice-chancellor (academic), chairing institutional promotion panels, the failure of this conceptualisation was readily apparent.

The team players, who contributed with remarkable prowess across the breadth of these domains, often struggled to make their case because they were not “outstanding” in at least one of them. How can it be that these good corporate citizens, whom I would wish for in every institution, cannot easily be recognised and rewarded for their integrated contributions, which exploit the synergies of academic endeavour?

I suggest that this is symptomatic of our sectoral failure to articulate a compelling and integrative account of who we are and what we do that is of public value and consequence. Exhibit A is our inability to altruistically take on thought leadership of a lifelong learning ecosystem that could get individual and collective social and economic well-being back on track at a national level.

To be fair, there were some very good attempts at this pre-pandemic in Australia; for instance, by the Monash Commission, the Mitchell Institute, the McKell Institute, among others. But as a national sector (let alone as a global community), our disparate and visceral institutional self-interest is such that we find it exceedingly difficult to “do” holistic.

To take but one piece of the all-important joined-up puzzle, experts across government, industry, society and education agree furiously that we need a connected post-secondary education and training system, in which lifelong learning for all must become a reality if we are to accommodate the extra learning demands of the future workplace. But opinions are starkly divided on how this ought to be achieved in practice. Who is taking responsibility for bringing this cacophony of voices together in search of the consensus that is clearly in the national interest? Not us – even though it would seem that our sector would be best placed to do so if we brought all of our intellectual firepower to bear.

For me, this is the role of the modern university. We should be the intelligent change agents, the honest brokers who set self-interest aside and work for the immediate and long-term common good across all of our areas of activity, consulting and building consensus for a better national future. This would be a true outworking of a teaching-research-service nexus, taking us well beyond our conceptual straining for a teaching-research nexus that, according to a 2013 Grattan Institute report, “has not to date received much support from empirical studies”.

Our response to Covid-19 has shown that we can be agile, responsive, innovative and compassionate, investing in putting students first. Could we harness that spirit to exploit the synergies of our sector’s mission more generally, generating holistic responses to the current health, economic, social and education crises?

Author Bio: Sally Kift is a visiting professorial fellow at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and an adjunct professor at La Trobe University, Queensland University of Technology and James Cook University, where she was formerly deputy vice-chancellor (academic).