As I look at the recent unrest occurring in the western world, I cannot help but believe a perceived lack of opportunity is the primary driving force for these sad events. This perception is being exacerbated by the internet: individuals are able to see the differences between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, and the social and economic privilege wealth brings every day on their phones. Because a clear, attainable path to upwardly advance their economic and social position is not apparent, the current state of society is perceived by many as unfair and discriminatory. This discontent can fuel actions that, to say the least, are destructive and, in some cases, murderous. While the feeling of exclusion in society is not an excuse, it does provide insight into actions that are needed to create a more harmonious world, and perhaps redefine the mission of our institutions of higher education.
In the last two decades, the role of public universities has evolved. To a large extent, public universities have had their mission redefined by their respective stakeholders, turning them into institutions whose primary objective is to act as accelerators for the economy. Lost in this transition is the fact institutions of higher education are the primary and most effective tool for enabling upward mobility. In the drive to reduce the cost of higher education while increasing the direct economic impact of university activities, a more hardline business model for funding investment is being applied. The result is that many programmes, in particular those related to the arts and social sciences, are seen to have marginal value and, as such, receive limited investment in resources. What is missing in this analysis is the longstanding benefit universities can provide to society beyond the direct translation of technology.
By focusing disproportionately on knowledge creation and translation, the impact of universities on society is diminished
Public universities need to satisfy a number of objectives. First, they provide a means to educate the population. They also act as a critical medium for the expansion of our understanding of the world beyond the context of local experience. This knowledge enables university graduates to interact and successfully compete internationally. The second objective of a public university is to create new knowledge. This helps drive industrial development and, almost as importantly, enhances pride in the community. It helps define a community’s position on the world stage, while advancing economic prosperity. Third, and most importantly, public universities provide the path to upward mobility. A university is a place where aspirations are encouraged and realised; a place where dreams can start to become reality. It is this third feature that truly differentiates public institutions from private ones.
By focusing disproportionately on knowledge creation and translation, the impact of universities on society is diminished. Devaluing the arts and social sciences encourages students to not learn the lessons of history and recognise how the past has shaped the current world. Without this knowledge, prior societal experiences cannot be leveraged to realise new opportunities. This lack of educational breadth also stifles the pursuit of an understanding of differences in cultures and value systems. These differences can directly impact both personal and business transactions. Last, in failing to nurture the development of an appreciation for artistic creativity – the defining feature of humanity – an important tool for nurturing global partnerships and understanding is lost.
The net result of failing to place appropriate emphasis on non-technical subject matter is the graduation of students who are not well equipped to interact and compete globally. It directly impedes their understanding of people from different cultures. Aside from failing to recognise market opportunities, this ignorance can lead to wasted opportunities to prevent conflict and promote growth. All students should be given the opportunity and actively encouraged to have in-depth experiences in the soft sciences. Discounting the value of investing and financially supporting advances in these fields is poor economics that ultimately devalues the societal investment in higher education.
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Of even greater concern is access to higher education. A university education is the single most important governmental tool for promoting socio-economic upward mobility. It provides hope and promise. It is the defining brass ring of opportunity. This is the reason public universities were created. They were funded by communities with the goal that the next generation, regardless of financial circumstance or heritage, would have the ability to access better paying jobs and an improved quality of life. Entry to the university would only be limited by personal talent and drive. Unfortunately, the reality is the opportunity for many to attend university is blocked because of lack of resources or poor primary education systems. Not having access to higher education squashes aspirations for a better life, often generating resentment against those who are more prosperous. This resentment can take many forms, including active expressions of intolerance.
An active reaffirmation of the role of public universities in society is necessary if we wish to build a more harmonious world and capitalise on its potential. Reasserting the optimism of a promise of a better tomorrow for all is essential if we wish to restore societal stability. Public universities are the primary vehicle with which to achieve this reality. This requires universities, and those who fund them, expand their metrics of performance for measuring success beyond the goal of advancing economic prosperity: a new vision that is focused on improving societal prosperity should be adopted. We need to appreciate both that investment in non-technical subject areas has great value, and that we need to redouble efforts to enable access and success for all who have the talent to attend a university. These are critical investments. Public universities can be society’s vanguard, not only in delivering technology to drive and advance the world’s economic engine, but also in expanding inclusiveness, hope and the promise of a better future for all.