The engaged university of the future

A mulberry tree

To mark the launch of our Engaged Futures report, Simon Whittemore, Head of Change - Enterprise at Jisc, presents us with a botanical vision for the future of the engaged university.

How will public universities in 2025 be helping to achieve a fair, kind, prosperous, equal and knowledge-enabled society? In a largely secular but broadly tolerant society such as the UK, where information is a more widely available currency than ever – a two-sided coin of opportunity and exploitation, brokered through the power of technology – what responsibilities and opportunities lie with the engaged university of the future? Here are some ideas, to be taken with a pinch of salt...

For me, the engaged university of the future is best represented by a mulberry tree, the tree of life for the ancient Chinese. More precisely, a hybrid of the red and white mulberry trees. Why? It can host producers of raw silk that create precious strands of knowledge, which can be harnessed and woven into magnificent creations, with practical and enriching effects. It can also nurture and produce ripe fruit - expertise and talented, adaptable graduates - vital resources for the prosperity and sustenance of society. In addition it provides a habitat for a diverse range of participants (birds and other animals), a means of soaking up and harnessing excess energy in society (reducing pollution by absorbing carbon dioxide) and shade from harsher more unforgiving environments. 

The engaged university/hybrid mulberry tree will require some gentle pruning to keep it at optimal health, and root growth in the local area needs to be carefully considered and consulted upon so that it does not eventually cause subsidence (social imbalances). This awareness of shared, evolving place is a core characteristic for the engaged university and its members.

The engaged university of 2025 will be relevant to all of society, a paragon of plurality and diversity: "Putting learning and ideas back where they always should have been: right in the middle of our lives".  

Mulberry treeWe need not assume it will be totally new, but it will have evolved; the mulberry tree in the photograph is over 300 years old so it is likely to be providing new fruit in 2025. Those who use the power of the engaged university/mulberry tree will be able to innovate from its raw material – creating silk goods, weaving savoir-faire, paper from bark, and preserves/comestibles.

It will champion employability, providing rich opportunities for students of all ages, but will be operating in a redefined world of work where commuters don’t queue in traffic or pack themselves like sardines into trains daily, where the working world is more flexible and technology-enabled, more open to other cultures, to learning and development and quality of life. It will be of its locality but equipped to operate nationally and globally. 

The following are 10 defining features of the proposed engaged university of 2025:

  1. Open: actively embraces the principle of free public access to publicly-funded research outputs; opens up libraries, museums to local community; open learning online. A digital mulberry tree.
  2. Universal values, ethical foundation - e.g. equality, fairness, dignity. Accepts sharing and co-operation as vital principles for healthy society. Intellectual acuity with social conscience.  
  3. Creates good citizens, inculcating: critical abilities; intellectual rigour; compassion/empathy; creativity; versatility; listening, presenting; resilience.  Autonomy plus power = responsibility.
  4. Local – also operates in deprived areas; local residents’ forum, local partnerships; pastoral, educational. Avoids exacerbating urban employment polarisation; partners with colleges.
  5. International: Twinning scheme – exchanging practices, students, placements, online lectures, research co-design. Language study for every UG[5]. Visiting lecturers from contrasting countries.
  6. Collaborative: engagement as core value: rewards, parity of esteem; recognition of skills involved individually and collectively. Sustainable success without collaboration is not possible.
  7. Confidently independent – internal quality commitment; challenges convention, complacency, narrow-mindedness. Universities have too often served rather than challenged prevailing powers and values.
  8. Engaged research - conscious of cultural context; involvement of others in research lifecycle; interdisciplinary, boundary-spanning, non-atomistic: hosting co-research with externals.
  9. Engaged academic practice - reciprocal culture mixing: ‘pracademics’; academic outputs accessible to layman; valuing teaching; resisting facile academia-commerce polarisation, without losing integrity.
  10. Engaged learning and teaching for employability and life-readiness: business sponsored P/T study; alumni mentoring; third age students; mixed vocational and academic courses.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to Sir David Watson, a leading light in extending the reach of universities, their role within communities and the mobility of students. The engaged university should inculcate, to quote Sir David, "the capacity to empathise, to connect with other people".                                                                         

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