The pursuit of understanding and unfolding the human experience must continue to flow, in order for it to flourish.
As we are in the midst of COVID-19 and the subsequent changes it has enforced upon higher education, we are reminded that ‘only that which is lost remains eternal’ (Ibsen, 1868). Crises and challenges also spur new ways and new truths.
Casting our eyes towards the future, we acknowledge how immensely successful the university model has been for many centuries. Since they came about in the 12th century, over the Humboldtian ideal to the more market orientation in the last century, universities have proven to be both resilient and adaptable.
When Clark Kerr in 1963 talked about the ‘knowledge industry’ as the ‘focal point for national growth’ and ‘universities at the centre of the knowledge process’, he made a prediction about the nature of the future, but also indirectly set an ambition for universities. Here, 50+ years down the line, we can see how the predictions came true in that data, with information and knowledge now being recognised as the driving output of the work done (at least in the more affluent parts of the world). We can also see that universities may be at the centre of the knowledge process but they are certainly not alone. Depending on the view of knowledge, corporations, private research institutes, media and so forth claim command, relevance and respect.
The basic ideas of educating people and generating and disseminating knowledge, seem to be landmarks towards the future. However, what that entails, how that is done and for what reasons, are likely to be a dance between the pursuit of universality and relativism.
There are voices saying that universities are becoming archaic, becoming obsolete and indeed may cease to exist. That may be an overstatement as they do not factor in that we do not really have any alternatives in place and assume that universities will not be able to accommodate to new technology and shifting preferences. What is quite true though is that universities may lose prominence and significance over time for individuals, organisations and society as a whole. Questions around inclusion and diversity, global challenges, wellbeing and empathy quickly come to mind.
“The path to happiness and success may not require a university degree. And this points to a central theme of challenges ahead: How to cater for and cultivate the human experience?”
The qualities of the knowledge society – such as know-how, analytical and logical skills – will still be important, but qualities such as creativity, courage, compassion, collaboration and character will be indispensable in a creative and human society. In such a society – paraphrasing Cark Kerr – universities can be at the centre of the human experience process. It will require an approach that goes beyond focusing on activities such as research, teaching, testing and grading. There will be a need for a greater sensibility and sensitivity towards the world, towards the ‘we-ness’ and the person.
Ultimately, the challenge in the future for universities will be how we as a society view the university, its role, responsibility and relevance. At the core lies our common human, ever-evolving experience. It will be our job to facilitate that conversation.