The Future of Universities



Yesterday I was part of a panel discussion organized by Bristol University Press on the futures of universities. Interestingly, the webinar took place that same day that UNESCO published its A New Social Contract for Education report, which has really interesting and relevant ideas for Higher Education. Here is a summary of the report by Fernando Reimers who was a member of the UNESCO commission.


In our webinar, together with Josie McLellan, co-author of Who are Universities For? Remaking Higher Education and Jennie Bristow, co-author of Generational Encounters with Higher Education: The Academic-Student Relationship and the University Experience, I discussed ideas of how universities might be changing in the future, in the face of political pressures, social challenges and changing demographics. Drawing on my book, I talked about the need for future universities to better engage in critical-creative teaching and presented a specific example of discussions in my Urban Futures class around COP26 and its implications for cities and Brighton in particular.


Josie's presentation was particularly thought-provoking, in arguing for a radical shake-up of the current HE system in the UK based on her experiences of setting up a Foundation year program in Arts and Humanities at Bristol University. She argued for the abolishing of A-level entry requirements, whose shortcomings were made explicit by the last two years of the pandemic, making part-time studies and lifelong learning the norm to fit them better into working lives, and arguing for a 'porous university' that is closely integrated into surrounding communities, who participate in setting universities' research and teaching agendas. This reminded me 'the ecological university' explored by scholars like Richard Barnett and Susan Wright that I came across when researching my own book. There have been some experimentations in this space, such as the 'trust university' modeled after the Mondragon university in Spain.


Jennie put her talk in the context of the changes brought by the COVID pandemic but also taking a longer historical view of the purpose of universities, and particularly the changing role of academics who have become multiple services to the paying student body. She asked what happened when the whole university experience disappeared after unis closed down, alongside much of other public life, in 2020. And what is the potential to now rediscover universities as spaces of community and learning? Finally, Julia Mortimer from Bristol University Press talked about the role of university presses in supporting research and academic life as well as wider social connections.


There were some interesting discussion questions around the making of knowledge, the role of design in creative education and whether there is cause for optimism or pessimism, especially given the relentless grip of neoliberalism. All panelists professed to feeling optimistic, if for nothing else than realizing the need for significant changes in the HE system. One interesting point that was raised, not for the first time in connection to my work, is how my creative proposals could work outside of the social sciences, for example in the STEM disciplines or engineering. As always, I am looking for educators to explore these questions with, and today I received a long email from somebody who had been at the talk and is doing research on access to maths education. So the connections are happening!


If you are interested in listening to a recording of the webinar, you can find it here.