What is a university for?

Professor Jess Power, Associate Dean – Students


There are several possible interpretations of the fundamental role of a university, however the one that holds close to my values and beliefs is “the university” as an institution for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, creating graduates who have a genuine commitment to making the world a better place and of being significant players in civil society. The western university model has been a remarkable success and is one in which we should have immense pride. Operational freedom within an interactive setting which enables excellence across teaching, research, learning and enterprise opening unlimited opportunities for many. However, in an increasingly complex and uncertain world the role of the university is constantly being questioned. In particular there has been a recent drive for developing “value”, in the form of employable work ready graduates. This may be interpreted as a set of desirable skills and attributes to be embedded within the curriculum or perhaps and more importantly the development of an entrepreneurial mind-set. The ability to think outside the box, to adapt and respond to change in a fast paced environment and more importantly the ability to be able to communicate within and beyond their academic discipline is perceived key to graduates contributing to societal challenges.

In today’s global economy and in society as a whole we are faced with many complex challenges (clean water, ageing population, disaster management, global-warming, sustainable food production, transitioning populations), which require new ways of working. It is widely accepted that innovative and sustainable solutions for many complex global social issues reach far beyond the boundaries of a single academic discipline or methodological approach and as such the practical argument for embedding interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary collaboration opportunities into the learning experience within universities is strong. Interdisciplinary working is widely accepted to be the new mode of knowledge production, it focuses on building intellectual capacity and is supported by government policy makers and research funding agencies. Many of the most exciting developments cross traditional disciplinary boundaries and therefore have great potential to break through complex societal problems and foster innovation.

The concept of interdisciplinarity within Higher Education is not new: Thompson and Fogel (1921), acknowledged in their publication ‘Higher Education and Social Change’ that all social problems require interdisciplinary skills and knowledge. They expanded on this by stating: “if graduates … are to be societies’ leaders …they need a broad social and historical perspective that is difficult to achieve in one discipline”. Thompson and Forgel’s (1921) paper highlighted specifically the need for Higher Educational institutions to promote interdisciplinarity as a means of developing the essential skills of leadership required to impact on civil society.

So, what is a university for? It is to change mind-set, opening up opportunities to bring together individuals to generate knowledge to solve societal problems for the good of mankind. Thus, the connections we make, the disciplines we cross and the knowledge we form are only part of the picture, it is the transformative impact on people’s life’s that we make that hold the true meaning of the value of a university, which instil the leadership qualities desired to make the world a better place.

 

Thompson, K.W. & Fogel, B.R. (1921). Higher Education and Social Change: Promising Experiments in Developing Countries. Vol 1 Reports. US: Praeger.

www.staffs.ac.uk 

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