Universities need a new compact with society and these should be the priorities


We recently argued in an essay in Fast Company that the many aftershocks emanating from the coronavirus pandemic will prevent any return to “normal”. Instead, we must plan for the new directions civilisation will take. Education, broadly understood, is one of humanity’s oldest institutions and a pillar of our collective civilisation. For the sake of the future, then, higher education must do more than just come along for the ride into the next civilisational order.

The coronavirus pandemic has served as a great test of which of society’s institutions are truly essential services, and which are prepared to adapt to the next normal in a time frame that is meaningful to everyone. At the moment, higher education would not receive high marks for adaptation as universities had few or no continuity plans to deal with the pandemic, and many institutions were financially so close to the edge before it hit that they may not survive.

However, Covid-19 has revealed that innovation and scientific progress are more important than ever, and not just in the realm of medicine. The trillions of dollars of additional debt taken on by the world economy can be overcome only by either high inflation (which is undesirable) or new breakthroughs that unleash human potential and growth. Now is the time for universities, as bedrocks of discovery, to make a new, mutually beneficial compact with society. Here we suggest some priorities for how universities, governments, private capital and students can come together to reframe higher education.

1. Real investment

Covid-19 revealed the extent to which governments are willing to go to prop up banks and businesses, with the US and Europe each laying out already more than $2.5 trillion (£3.1 trillion) in stimulus measures. Alongside adapting to climate change, educating every person in the world to meet his or her full potential should be a top global priority – and clearly the money is available to fund it if the case is made. But such a commitment on behalf of the world’s governments and private investors must come with a corresponding commitment from universities to better use society’s resources and to become more accountable in terms of fiscal sustainability and outcomes.

2. True inclusivity

Universities need to rethink inclusivity. For example, even though Ivy League and Russell Group universities rely on public funds for most of their income, they trade in exclusive enrolments. In the US, they deny access to 99 per cent of the public. But why can’t Harvard University enrol 100,000 students? The argument that its course load is too difficult doesn’t stand up to scrutiny given the flexible timescales and teaching modes available today. We applaud Arizona State University for “flipping” the argument with its claim that a great university should be measured by those it includes and not those it excludes.

3. Applied public service

The current crisis is a reminder that humanity faces myriad long-term existential challenges that are all fighting for priority. Academic institutions have for centuries been critical to fundamental breakthroughs – from nuclear power to the internet – and now there should be little doubt that health and sustainability are the issues that must stand front and centre.

Humanities have felt under threat in recent years as funding priorities have shifted towards STEM fields, but resource allocation will need to prioritise fundamental research even more particularly in fusion energy, epidemiology and agricultural science – where solutions that serve the global public interest can emerge. Progress will be made only through holistic, interdisciplinary research efforts.

4. Collaboration drives quality

The online experience forces universities to demonstrate quality in a more measurable fashion. A Zoom lecture on electrical engineering at the University of Cambridge might not differ substantially from that offered at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia – do we need to have separate Zoom lectures on the same subject in the same language across hundreds of universities any more? Is that a good use of society’s resources? One way to focus higher education’s work on more important activity would be to shift to a mode where collaboration, even sharing pedagogy, becomes the norm. If Cambridge’s lectures in any subject are indeed superior, then the imperative to share them across the world only increases.

5. True resilience

For decades, universities have built endowments, massive buildings (often designed by celebrity architects), and carried large operating overheads on the basis that these initiatives improved resilience, and that in our darkest hours they would be able to shoulder the burden of building and disseminating knowledge. This has not happened. The concentration of resources in physical places is now anathema to the process of achieving universal education and societal adaptation. Many universities have spent more on campus administration than on educational functions and faculty salaries, with hard-working families footing the bill via tuition fees. Genuine social resilience is based in broadening access to services as much as possible, whether through telemedicine or online education.

Last year in The Atlantic, noted economist Tyler Cowen called for a “new science of progress”, arguing that we need to get better at understanding how we get better. If ever there was a time for higher education to throw its considerable weight behind such a mission, it is now.

Author Bio: Parag Khanna is founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a strategic advisory firm.