Imagine finding yourself in the middle of a wide-ranging, almost holistic societal shock. One that has an impact on all aspects of life: politics, economies, culture, society and consequently all Higher Education Institutions around the globe. A crisis so far-reaching that for a moment of time it even overshadowed the most pressing 21st century challenges like climate change, demography, urbanization, economic growth, energy consumption, hyper-connectivity and shifting geopolitics.
As Peter Scott argued in 1999, that universities might be ill-adapted to future shocks, he was engaged in deep reflections on conceptualizing the knowledge economy: Will the university decline or transform? He stated, in a post-modern world, society as such might be different from all we have witnessed before. While in modern industrial society, the university has become overwhelmingly an institution of “movement”, in the society to come, it might simultaneously also be an institution of powerful “stabilization”. Because change will be happening rapidly as never seen before, both qualities will be needed for the modern university.
From my own observations as a student, scholar, vice-rector and now minister, I have seen both qualities in universities: profound movement, which I call agility and stability, which I call resilience. I would like to share a few of those observations:
First, in the profound changes in the knowledge society, and further in the transformed innovation system, universities have kept their distinct form of knowledge production where basic research and applied research at a broad range of disciplines still define the strength of this institution. Also, in an organizational context, the university has always claimed to belong to a world-wide community of institutions where scientists have the right of circulation regardless of nation borders while at the same time being strongly rooted in the local context.
Second, from the early beginnings, universities have been spaces where scholars and students meet to exchange and advance ideas. This unique function of intertwined research and teaching has persisted and will persist, albeit in a rather adjusted, more hybrid mode. The advancement of digital learning technologies is transforming the way of learning and teaching. We all witnessed the rapid movement into solely distance learning in the last months. Out of this unique experience, we are obliged to reflect on how to integrate these new insights in the overall university experience, while comply with the claim of sparking critical thinking, reflexivity and scientific dialogue as goals of higher education.
Third, the contribution of universities to the good of society has probably never been as visible as in the last view months. Scientists from diverse fields of expertise contributed intensively to evidence-informed decision-making; not only in health and medical issues. Already now, we see an immense creative potential for solving current issues with the knowledge from past and current research. At the same time, the limitations of science became obvious: in a strong democracy, decision-making still needs to be taken in the political arena.
“Drawing from history and my own observations, I argue, that universities have been in a continuous transformation. I value their uniqueness and their ability of simultaneously being agile and resilient.”
With the synergy of these two qualities, I deeply trust that universities will shape current and future challenges and thus taking their role in making a huge contribution to a resilient society.
Federal Minister Heinz Fassmann was reappointed as Minister of Education, Science and Research, Austria in January 2020. Before he was Professor of Applied Geography, Spatial Research and Regional Planning at the University of Vienna and Vice Rector for Research and International Affairs. Additionally, he served as chairman of the expert board for integration in the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs. Heinz Fassmann is a full member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and of the Academia Europa.