It is now a cliché to describe the way COVID-19 has disrupted higher education: from the pivot to online delivery and the need for budget repair, to re-imagining how we engage with our global partners. For Australian higher education institutions, the lack of student mobility, the tensions with China and a hostile federal government have also highlighted the financial vulnerabilities in the sector. Globally, the re-emergence of the Black Live Matter protests that began with a focus on police brutality towards minority communities in the United States, have expanded to the raise awareness regarding the underlying histories of colonialism, slavery and displacement. For universities, this has demanded that we reflect on what we teach, how we teach and a reckoning with a Euro-centric curriculum.
These events have emerged alongside rebirth of populist politics, from Brexit to Donald Trump, and the election of leaders as far and wide as Poland and Brazil. These leaders have often driven an anti-intellectualism, a distrust of expert systems and the failed to adequately respond to conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
The truth, however, is that many of these ‘black swan’ events that have shifted the way we see the world are an accumulation of longer-term trends that many institutions have chosen to ignore. As such, we have struggled to come to grips what is now confronting us.
Despite this, this moment provides us with a unique opportunity to reflect on our mission, the way we engage with various communities and how we approach our learning and teaching. What we cannot do is pursue ‘business as usual’ but neither can we jump onto the latest teaching fad. What is required is a simultaneous embracing of the historical mission of the university to pursue a ‘good life’ as well as the willingness to innovate.
It within this context that I would like to raise four strategies to be pursued.
1. Embracing the citizen-scholar
Universities and higher education offer all societies the opportunity to improve their material well-being. This has personal benefits: access to higher wages through improved professional opportunities, and better long-term health.
Education is also a public good, however. Our communities will improve if more people contribute to reducing inequality and establishing a knowledge and innovation- based economy. Institutions must ensure our practices foster graduates who are not only proficient in a specific discipline but also maintain a set of skills and cultural practices that speak to the idea of what it is to be a citizen. That is, we want engineers to build bridges, doctors to be able to diagnose patients and scientists to lead the world in research – but this is not enough. They must also build a range of skills and proficiencies that mean they add more to society than merely economic growth.
This is the idea of the “citizen scholar” which encapsulates the idea that the role of universities is to promote scholarship as well as producing active and engaged citizens. 1
Universities need to promote a set of skills and cultural practices that educate students beyond their disciplinary knowledge. This arguably pushes the debate beyond the simple transfer of skills as part of the activities and academic development necessary to compete a degree. Rather it takes on a broader, more societal focus.
Such thinking comes from the idea that universities maintain a social mission that mobilises knowledge for the benefit of society. A central purpose of higher education is to improve the societies in which they operate and foster citizens who can think outside of the box and innovate with the purpose of community betterment.
While citizen scholars should have a range of skills and proficiencies, there are three I would like to outline here:
- Firstly, universities must help students to establish an ethical framework that simultaneously encourages their own economic ambitions while reminding them they are part of a society that they both rely on and whose future relies on them. This is particularly important when confronted by the challenges of sustainability and resilience, and with political systems that have been plagued with allegations of corruption;
- A second proficiency is cross cultural engagement, something that has never been more important. This is fundamental in confronting some of the xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiment too often employed by populist leaders. It is also an important skill in increasingly diverse industries; and,
- Thirdly, there is a need to promote mistakability: that is, the ability to confront and learn from our mistakes. All too often, we expect our students to get it right immediately and the fear of failure means that our students take a safe approach rather than embracing curiosity and experimentation. The many challenges we confront require different thinking, and we should never expect different results from following the same processes
2. Build strategies on listening
While universities and higher education institutes no doubt have expert knowledge, it is important that we understand the fears, aspirations and desires of the communities we serve. This means rather than assuming we know what their priorities are, we understand those priorities and focus on confronting them.
Deep listening is at the core of any university engagement strategy. This is listening without judgement and prejudice – even if you do not like what you are hearing.
One example is the way many communities that were once identified as ‘left-leaning’ have embraced right wing populists including former Obama-supporters who voted for Donald Trump. As I have written elsewhere,2 there was a tendency to homogenise conservative Trump supporters into one category: the ‘deplorables.’
My recent research has focused on the many vulnerable groups who feel that they have been left behind, and worry about the future and wellness of their children. These people are often middle and working class who now live in rust belt towns and are suffering economic hardships. To engage, we must listen to their fears and concerns and respond appropriately.3
3. Avoiding the next jargonistic revolution
This takes me to my third point, that solutions offered here must be jointly agreed to and discussed in common language, breaking through elitist attitudes and exclusionary language.
One example is the way my own institution came to understand the desires of our local community to ensure the local students received a world class education that was internationally recognised. This drove the establishment of ‘The Academy at Western Sydney University’ – essentially an honours college for high performing students. This was embraced by the local community and enrolments of high performing students almost doubled.
The Academy was established in partnership with the local community. Like any good education program, it responded to a specific need while at the same time being framed by a strong learning philosophy: the citizen-scholar. We avoided jargon such as ‘partnership pedagogy’ or ‘flipped classrooms’ or ‘hyflex’. These are not terms that add anything to the discussion with our students or partners.
According to George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, clear writing comes from clear thinking4. If we wrote and spoke less in jargon, perhaps our thinking would come across clearer and would be more inclusive.
4. Promoting brave not just safe spaces
The final point to make is that education must be an environment that is safe and non-judgemental. While all students should feel safe, we must take the journey with our students and allow them to make mistakes – the mistakability I described above. In this way, we need to ensure that our classrooms are also brave places where the educational power of discomfort emerges.5 Discomfort comes in many forms, but key is that it challenges our ‘embraced truths’. It is only through such discomfort that we learn.
While such discussions must be respectful, they should also be confronting. It is only through such approaches that we will prepare our future citizen scholars.
All higher education institutes are at a crossroad. As such, we must decide what we want to stand for. Higher education institutions should be outward facing. This may be challenging, but without being open and working in partnership, then our mission is radically diminished.
By embracing the above strategies, we can move to ensure our organisations not only remain relevant, but that our graduates are prepared to confront our world’s many grand challenges.
Professor James Arvanitakis (PhD) bio
Professor James Arvanitakis (PhD) is the Pro Vice Chancellor (Engagement) at Western Sydney University where he lectures in the Humanities and is a member of the Institute for Cultural and Society. He recently spent 12 months at the University of Wyoming as the Milward L Simpson Fulbright Fellow. In 2015, James founded The Academy at Western Sydney University which received an Australian Financial Review Higher Education Excellence Award (2016). In 2016, he established Western’s Graduate Research School. James is internationally recognised for his innovative teaching, receiving the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year Award (2012) and named an Eminent Researcher by the Australia India Education Council (2015). He blogs here.
Professor James Arvanitakis, PhD
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Engagement)
Division of People and Advancement
Fulbright Fellow: Milward L. Simpson Visiting Professor – University of Wyoming
M: +61-438 454 127 | E: email@example.com
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