The fully functioning university in challenging times transcript

Helen Beddow (HB): Universities were clearly in a time of transformation, change and uncertainty before COVID-19. They've been recently under increasing pressure to demonstrate their value and now that change, that uncertainty has only accelerated because of COVID-19. Today we're going to consider how universities can adapt and function in this new environment.

We speak to Asher Rospigliosi from the University of Brighton Business School, an economic sociologist, researching the role and function of higher education. Asher together with Professor Tom Bourner and Dr Linda Heath, are authors of the new book: The Fully Functioning University. Welcome Asher, thank you for joining us.

Asher Rospigliosi (AR): Thank-you Helen, it's really good to be here today and to have a chance to talk with you. 

HB: Your book outlines a clear vision of what universities need to focus on to be fully functioning, can you explain a bit more about what a fully functioning university is?

AR: Yes, I think it's an explanation that draws a bit on history because the university is a long-standing institution that has changed over time. And over times has served different purposes and so when I talk about the fully-functioning university it's with the light of 1000 years of history behind us. The idea that a university serves 3 quite distinct missions, that it contributes to the advancement of knowledge, that it provides a higher education for students, and that it serves society in which it is a part. So these 3 different parts sometimes known as the tripartite mission, complement each other and at different times in history have been of different importance. Our concept of the fully-functioning university now is that those 3 parts serve each other and work together.

HB: And why haven't universities been reaching this?

AR: Well in part that is…why haven't universities been reaching the fully-functioning university ideal or the model that we have of balance, is in part because universities have a long history and have served different purposes at different points in their history and so at different stages of the development of the university different parts of the mission or the function have been of different importance. So for a long time in the early years of the university in Europe the service of the church developing a clerical class, literally a clerical class, of those equipped with the primary vocational skill of the age, which was fluent Latin. Being able to use Latin, was once the most vocational outcome university could offer and it was in many respects what universities were about for a long time. So service to developing a useful skill in students, as we would now think of them, was the primary function. At other points, the university has served other functions as its primary service and so for example in the early half of the twentieth century when we saw the development of the great sort of scientific institutions the advancement of knowledge and the mission to research and record and disseminate knowledge was seen as of greater importance. So when we look at universities now we've seen the university that has these different facets that can complement each other and our aspiration is that this model the fully-functioning university helps those who are trying to decide what universities can do, what their value is and what they should be doing can weigh up these different elements and see how they complement each other.

HB: So, universities can only be fully functioning if they value each part of this tripartite mission the higher education of students, the advancement of knowledge and service to those outside the university equally. And you know it's clear that the idea of contributing to the world outside of the university is a significant part of fully functioning that emphasizes more society focused research. Universities have kind of been traditionally organized and done their research around subjects, you know subjects centred research, do you think that the society focus around research has become more important in this new era of universities and what strategies would you suggest for universities in doing this?

AR: Thank you that's a really good question Helen, and there are sort of 2 parts to it, I might need reminding to go to the strategies which are less where my natural scholarly inclination lies. But in terms of thinking is it important for universities to emphasize society focused research and how that relates to the historical or at least the last 100 years or so where there has been huge emphasis on subjects centred excellence and subject centred research. Yes, I think you're absolutely right in saying that where universities are going as they increasingly are recognized as something that contributes to society is society focused research. We see that already has a significant change in the last 20 or 30 years the idea of cross-disciplinary and integrative studies has become more and more important, really probably since about the time of the Second World War when big scientific projects to solve really pressing problems related to the defeat of Nazism lead to the foundation of things like systems thinking and the integration of different fields of knowledge to solve what is sometimes known as wicked problems. So this idea of research being focused on delivering value to society has been building momentum. And in the UK we can see its importance in the rhetoric or the value around impact so since the last major Research Excellence Framework (REF) the measurement of impact what this research actually does for anybody, and by anybody, we probably would take that as a proxy for society, has become one of the ways that funders of research, those who organize universities, and those who metricize universities such as through the REF want to see universities contributing more to society. And in terms of our thinking about what a fully functioning university might be like we think that if universities recognized the importance of their contribution to society this can have an impact, a beneficial impact on the other 2 parts of their full function and purpose. So if courses for students include both studying and understanding more about how research, development of ideas, learning can contribute to society and also perhaps doing it by having projects that re imbedded in the society where part of the goal of the learning for the students is to do something to give back to contribute. In USA this is already quite a common factor where many colleges have courses where it’s mandatory where students have to do something like volunteering in a local social organisation. I don’t know if in the UK it necessarily would look like that but the idea that what the students are studying might actually benefit the society around them can come to the fore and can help universities to be more fully functioning. And likewise, research increasingly is being expected not to be purely blue skies or theoretical although I still see that as very important, but to be seen as something that can deliver value back to society.

HB: What strategies would you suggest for higher education institutions here?

AR:I guess in practical terms we do think that the model of the fully-functioning university if it's seen as a sort of an ideal framework to aspire towards then it might help to shape strategies that might in practical terms include things like making sure that every degree program includes some aspect of developing a student's awareness of what Nussbaum a scholar I really like on the idea of the modern university. Nussbaum calls the sort of the global citizen so students who are studying have an awareness of the role of their study their development in contributing to society whether that’s at the macro level, like the increasing importance we all need to place on the environment or on the social level like thinking about the contribution to change in historic injustices or on the purely practical level of going out and perhaps volunteering in society. So I think the strategies the university's courses that explicitly help students to see how what they're doing is not just about personal self-advancement earning a higher graduate premium and self-development but also about being able to contribute more to society. And like my strategies for research let's say that or that explicitly encourage research that will create value for society.

HB: Going back to what you're saying about society focused research really beginning around the close of the Second World War and that's really interesting that, that change happened after such a kind of a major disruption, a major global disruption, obviously we're experiencing in major global description right now with COVID-19. In a recent paper you described COVID-19 as a discontinuity and I loved that because my background is in Earth Sciences and there a discontinuity is a physical abrupt stop or gap in the geologic(al?) record that you couldn’t physically see and is a result of these kinds of dramatic changes in the environment, everything in the system needs to adapt. This idea of COVID-19 as a discontinuity in our educational system. What has COVID-19 revealed about the structural issues currently existing in institutions and what do these systems need to do to adapt and carry on?

AR: Thank you that's a really good question and I'm pleased to bring in the concept of discontinuity both because it is a really interesting concept and perhaps it helps to indicate where some of the value of the fully-functioning university model is so yes the significant changes to the way society operates to the norms and to the values have been drivers of change in the university through its millennia-long history. I referred earlier to the sort of you know once Latin was the primary vocational outcome for students at universities, no longer the case and we can see that almost as a geological record in what it was that students wanted to get out of going to university now we see many discontinuities in contemporary society. The Marxist geographer Harvey talks about the crises of capitalism and capitalism goes through a series of crises and so some of the discontinuities are structural in the way that society organizes itself some historical like the legacy of colonialism and racism and how perhaps a triggering event like the brutal murder of George Floyd and the subsequent recognition of the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement give discontinuities that mean that universities have an opportunity and a mandate to think differently. And So right now in the UK higher education sector the impact of COVID-19 has meant that many universities are thinking today in this moment how can we deliver higher education to students and yet maintain safe social distancing and this has brought about or has accelerated the move to digitally mediated education so the digital transformation of higher education is something that I think we are seeing as discontinuity that will leave a profound impact between how universities did their processes of teaching and developing students last year and what it will look like next year.

HB: It's really interesting to talk about inequalities in the institution I mean these are institutions and learning structures that were designed by white men for white men and we see that structural inequality persists and to be fully functioning universities need to be for everyone, so what opportunities does this disruption of the norm, this discontinuity offer for making the institutions more equitable?

AR: Thank you that's a really good question, a nice question, one that’s valuable to think about. I think that it is important for those of us who are involved in delivering developing higher education to recognize the kind of power and privilege we have. And higher education is the inheritor of the legacy that includes what at its historical roots the appropriation of Islamic scholarship in the birth of the European university by those who I think would have described themselves as crusaders fighting Islam from the perspective of Christendom at the birth of the European university and in more recent history the service that science played to the support of the growing machine of capitalism the rapacious energy of colonialism and the dominance of white supremacy as a world view that informs and shapes what is in the curriculum of the university now does mean that a fully functioning university does need to think as you said Helen, about inclusion and what is not being said so particularly in response to service to society the university is in an important position of recognizing the value of critical thinking the role of recognizing that there is more than just the argument of the dominant hegemony so as the world is shaped at the moment by the legacy of the writings of dead white men it's incumbent on the fully functioning university to think about and to act upon what voices are not part of that dialogue what stories are not being told and that that contributes most directly to the part of the fully function university which is in service to society but it also addresses in important ways what it is that we as universities can do to develop how students to help them be global citizens aware of historic injustice or the importance of value in the environment and nurture and cherish in it of critiquing the assumptions informed by a funding system which imposes a sort of marketisation on what degrees are for and what students do degrees for and for what research should be about what questions research should be asking and what kinds of impact might be valued and there the importance of the environment the importance of historic injustice the importance of social change are all ways in which the university might contribute and is contributing. My colleague Tom Bourner when I was talking with him about the legacy of dead white men brought up a story that has personal resonance for me and that is that UK universities 70 years ago didn't award degrees or some of the premier universities, prestige universities such as Cambridge didn't award degrees to women until the 1950s, my Aunt went to Cambridge in the early 1950s and I hadn’t realized that she would have been one of the first women in the U.K. who was enabled by that university responding to social change to get a degree where previously wouldn't have been important or possible and today we see a little over of half of degrees awarded in the UK going to women so there is one particular historic injustice that we might hold up and say that the inclusion of women in higher education being able to get degreed from the elite universities shows the university becoming more fully functioning as inclusion has grown.

HB: thinking about this tripartite mission and in the higher education of students looking at their curriculums decolonizing the curriculums also serves a function there because the make-up of our student body is not just white men there are some universities where up to 50 percent of the student cohort is non-white and if you don't have a curriculum that speaks to those student’s experiences and speaks to those student's environments then the university can’t be fully functioning and also in thinking about advancement of knowledge you know there's been so many studies, we take we basically we take white as a universal norm and if we've taught students that way we see that replicated in the way that those students go on to say do research in academia and we see so many studies that are just  based on, say in medicine are based on white men that have led to issues around medication not being appropriate or seat belts not being appropriate different things like that so I think that inclusion and decolonization addresses all three missions.

AR: Thank you yes I think it's a really important point and one that we are rightly, and when I say we white men or white people who have tended to dominate the positions of power in universities are really needing to become alert to and respond to the idea of decolonizing the curriculum going beyond history, literature, and the arts but that recognizing as you say in fields as disparate as medicine, law and in my own areas of teaching and expertise things like algorithmic injustice and the way that software systems designed to benefit society but shaped by a pre-supposition about what society looks like leads too shocking, unacceptable inclusions and exclusions have - you referred to the impact of a white centric view on the world that has led to terrible outcomes in health and health sciences and I absolutely think that there are important lessons to be learned right now in in the discontinuity of COVID-19 when we think about what the assumptions have been about what safety looks like and who are essential workers in the crisis that the U.K. has just been through and then we acknowledge the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and other ethnic minority groups in the U.K. Or when we think about systems that are being built to support transformation and here I get into something I know more about the role of digital in education and in decision making processes. There are so many risks that the algorithmic injustice will perpetuate social injustices because so much show of how digital technologies work is based on learning, machine learning from existing systems and the risks there of exclusion in areas like AI and face recognition or the perpetuation of legal precedents that are based on historical injustices. Means that a fully functioning university that easing gauge with research that has benefit to the society and that serves the increasingly diverse student body must address and think about what it means to live in a culture where colonialism and white supremacy have set the tenure, the taste, the text, the legacy of what we think of as the cannon for example.

HB: What we do and don't count as valuable knowledge.

AR: Absolutely yes, yes.

HB: And that's a good point actually, about perhaps the students and how does a fully functioning university support its students in what is inevitably going to be a new area, post COVID, a lot of this is going to be digital, a lot of this is going to be online.

AR: Yes the digital transformation that's been going on in society for the last 15 or 20 or 30 years is being accelerated by the discontinuity of the COVID-19 crisis but was well underway anyway we see it more broadly in things like the transformation of the High Street and what it is to have shared social spaces. For our students, our fully functioning university that is digitally transformed is both a place of opportunity that a fully functioning university can do more to bring together the tripartite mission to help students see that the knowledge they are developing is a resource for society, informed by society, as well as something that can develop their own life opportunities. And yet there is also a huge risk and so I see the fully-functioning university as an ideal that needs to be part of how universities think as they approach the oncoming term in October where it digitally transformed curriculum would offer some opportunities for inclusion, they're all ways in which the digital transformation of higher education may make it more equitable, may allow voices who sometimes might be drowned out in seminars or not able to attend because of economic or caring responsibilities I think in particular of our black and minority ethnic students who often have economic pressures on them that may not be the norm across all of our student body. There are ways that the digital transformation can help make a more inclusive learning environment but there are also risks the digital divide; access to technology; access to quiet and safe study places are not things that we should and can assume are there for all our students.

HB: I think that brings me to another question what's becoming really clear from this discussion is how important it is to focus on three parts of this tripartite mission and for institutions to keep that mindset. Perhaps you can tell me a bit about what's wrong with a university prioritizing just one part of this mission to the exclusion of the two parts. What's wrong with institutions when they just focus on research, or just focus on teaching?

AR: I've talked about it as an aspirational model but I guess the flip side of an aspirational model is that it can be used as a deficit audit or a critique and when i think about what a fully functioning university can contribute I see risks if a university emphasizes one part of the tripartite mission to the exclusion of the other two so certainly there are ways in which the funding of higher education might encourage universities to develop a research-led strategy and see research as the primary goal for a university. And where that's the case if that research doesn't also recognize the importance of the development of students learning and of a contribution to society we risk seeing research that is measured on a metric that is internally derived from the goals of higher education research funding rather than research that is able to develop the university's part in society and contribution to society. Also in a research-led university there's a risk that the student experience will become secondary to the research goals of those academics that are motivated and rewarded for research outputs and this can lead to a form of higher education for students that doesn't develop them as citizens, doesn't develop them in a way that allows them to contribute to society but instead is inward-looking and focused on narrow research metrics. Likewise the move to having universities that are perhaps focused primarily on teaching that is seen as a degree-awarding bodies but that are not valued for their contribution to the society around them or not valued for their contribution to the advancement of knowledge, risks having students that don't see that their endeavours their contribution can lead to the valuable advancement of knowledge that is for the good of all. A very practical example that Tom, one of my fellow authors and I talk about often, is the increasing importance of Wikipedia and that we would like to see universities valuing Wikipedia as something to which students and academics would see it as a normal part of higher education to contribute. Wikipedia is one of those common goods that we can see the advancement of knowledge being generated by society, being drawn on used by society and if universities only value research as a research output in measured articles in ranked journals rather than research as something that develops their student's capacity to flourish, to live and contribute in society then a university risks not really being fully functional and being part of the society in which it is part.

HB: And that's a really good point the ways that people find information, the ways that people access information and take in information have changed and the institutions need to adapt to that. What does the institution need to do to support academics in developing new content types, new ways of learning, how does it support that?

AR: The acceleration of digital transformation brought about in the recent moments by  COVID-19 means that many academics are having to think thoughts literally like “how do I move my modules and courses online” for a safe socially distanced higher education in the autumn of 2020, what does that mean? And what can universities do to support that and reassure students, academics and society that this will be equitable? It's complex, a wicked question, a wicked problem, and one to which I couldn't aspire to give a simple and an immediate answer Helen. But it's a really important question for the academy, for those in higher education to think about and to perhaps push back against thunders and senior policy makers if there is a narrative that says universities are purely an instrument of economic advancement to develop wage-earning individuals who can contribute to the gross national product. Such a narrative misses many of the things that the fully-functioning university model aspires to highlight so the contribution, the self-development and the advancement of knowledge. And to get back to content and digital transformation, the digital transformation higher education offers enormous opportunities for wider access, widening participation greater inclusion and building a common good. So videos that are shared on YouTube, podcasts, to get a little self-referential in this moment, that are shared on open platforms without cost other than download, massive open online courses MoOOCS are all ways in which the digital transformation of higher education can bring enormous social good. And Wikipedia I think is a really powerful example of that something that is contributed to by people around the world and used by people around the world and yet perhaps is rather undervalued as a form of content within universities currently it's an area where perhaps the university, if it is to function fully, could engage more with, what is the role of digital content perhaps explicitly content platforms forms like Wikipedia as a way of contributing more fully to the advancement of knowledge, contributing more fully to the development of our students and their ability to contribute to the social good and to the society in which our universities are a part. 

HB: And that’s an interesting point in this current digital world we are kind of overwhelmed with information and rather than thinking about quantity the idea of curation and the idea of having reputation and trust in the information you’re reading becomes really important and this is where institutions have an opportunity to really speak to that third part of that tripartite about contributing to society.

AR: I like the line of thinking you were going with there Helen, and then it excites me to think that a fully functioning university might help contribute to the broader social needs of a  knowledge economy and a knowledge society where the digital transformation of so many of the processes of life whether it's shopping or dating or travelling or just developing one's own understanding of the world mediated and enabled on digital platforms that emerged out of research funded projects the internet has a legacy that shows how governments and universities can develop research projects to contribute to social good and yet also has a fearsome side when we think about the risks that come about by the algorithmic manipulation of emotion and communication. So the role of social media in misinformation and disinformation, fake news and the spreading of messages of hate is an enormous problem for society to which curators, custodians, advocates of knowledge the university has a function in both the development of students who are able to critically evaluate sources of knowledge and contribute to sources of knowledge. In the role of research the dissemination of research the place of research not just behind paywalls of academic publishers but also as a contribution to society through the, you used a very nice term Helen, as sort of custodians of knowledge. This is something that I think the fully-functioning university can and will and must step up to being honest broker as helpful contributors to an understanding of what knowledge is and what part it can play in society.

HB: Institutional leadership has quite a large task on their hands in driving universities forward to become fully functioning. I know change is often slow university systems can be very bureaucratic. How do, institutional leadership is going to need to kind of react and adapt quickly to crises like COVID-19 and in the wake of COVID-19 what should institutional priorities for a fully functioning university be? What might a sensible institutional strategy do at this point?

AR: The idea of taking part in a discussion of university strategy is one on one level as an academic I shy away from, and yet it is important if a university is to fully function that the development of an idea like the ideas in our book about the fully-functioning university aren’t seen as abstract but are thought about in the context of what should universities actually do. So I’ll have a go at thinking about an institution that wants to develop a more fully functioning role might look like and what it might try to prioritize. I suppose at the heart of the fully-functioning university idea is that each of the three parts of the university's mission support each other rather than dominate each other. And so thinking about how the advancement of knowledge, how provision of higher education of students and how service to the society of which we are part can be realized in university policies would require universities to think about each of those important parts of their mission, what is the research they are advancing? What is the provision of higher education to their students that they are developing and giving? And what part are they playing in serving society? And how they might serve each other? That's a bit waffly, what would that mean in practical terms? It might mean having a role explicit within research departments that looks, critically, at research projects from the perspective of how might the research serve and contribute to society but also how might the research serve and contribute to the higher education of students? Are there participant roles that students could play in the research? Might they be part of it? And that then might allow us to think as a university about the type of higher education we are taking part in with our students or providing for our students. Can we develop a student's capacity to do research, not just to draw from textbooks on existing learning but to contribute to the advancement of knowledge? And I've mentioned Wikipedia a few times Tom and I've had some exciting discussions about the idea that undergraduate degree programs might also students to find something that they could contribute to Wikipedia perhaps instead of a dissertation? Something like that might be a way to help students to see and to make their higher education not just about developing their own capacity and wage potential and fulfilment but also a way that they can contribute to the advancement of knowledge and thus to serve in society. Aand for universities we sometimes, Tom and I and Linda, think of the third part of the tripartite mission: the services to society as perhaps the Cinderella or most underdeveloped part of what universities are valuing. And a fully functioning university in its strategy needs to go beyond thinking how can we show the impact in the REF but instead develop, or as well develop, ways that impact actually contributes to the society around it, so thinking about research output, student projects, economic engagement will contribute to society.

HB: Thank you, Asher, for joining us today for that really interesting discussion.

AR: Thank you.