The Future of Academia – reconsidering the role of universities

By Victoria Rodner

Intercontinental Academia (ICA) not only presented itself as a gathering of young and senior academics to present their own approaches to the issue of time. At the heart of this event we find a deep contemplation on the future of universities as centres for research and training. From the opening ceremony to an exclusive lunch with the University of São Paulo’s Rector Professor Marco Antonio Zago, we note how the future of higher education remains a key concern for teaching staff, directors of institutions, the Ministry of Education, and, naturally, students.

During the delectable lunch hosted at the new rectory building overlooking São Paulo’s immense skyline, Professor Till Roenneberg points out that our concern lies not merely in the ‘future of universities’ (as physical structures and platforms for scholarship) but in the ‘future of academia’. This subtle change helps expand our dialogue on the subject and think beyond the bricks and mortar of the university as a physical structure and to consider how we approach research and teaching in more general terms. In a vivid panel discussion, 6 university presidents from Brazil and the UK discuss the challenges that universities face today and will face in the future.  From digital education to globalisation, from peer to peer learning and the obsolescence of the university professor, this panel presented a variety of issues currently affecting the university as a space for research and education. It was particularly interesting to tap into the actual workings of the university system and how to reconsider the mission and vision of these institutions so that they meet the demands of the future.  Compressed into 10-minute talks, each panel member took the opportunity to share their approach to higher education and how they envision it for the future. At the end of this discussion, we are left with the thought that universities as education vessels must adapt to their environments and can no longer behave like metaphorical ‘ivory towers’ that are idyllically distanced and untouched from wider macro-level forces. In order to survive and respond to the macro-environmental demands of the future, universities must adapt their teaching, research and outreach programmes to ensure their sustainability and relevance in society.

University AxisFocusing on the case of USP, former Rector of the university and former Minister of Education, Professor Jose Goldemberg argues that universities must have social relevance and encourage knowledge transfer as a way of bridging research to wider fields. Specifically, he argues that institutions of higher education should focus on influencing policy through their research. In his talk, he presents a critical review of the university and uses informative data taken from the 80th anniversary report that he published in 2014. Considering that the university is fully funded by the State of São Paulo, he believes that it is crucial that the institution is able to justify its existence, which means proving its relevancy well beyond the realms of academia. He applauds the efforts of certain departments within USP that have made noteworthy contributions to technology, science, or society (naming the Faculty of Agriculture and its advances in alternative forms of fuel for instance).  Prof Goldemberg is also keen to measure USP against other universities worldwide. Although the university is highly ranked (considering the dominance of US and UK research-led institutions in ranking tables), Prof Goldemberg feels that USP still has a long way to go to have a stronger impact on a global scale.  One way of increasing their academic impact inevitably lies in more accessible research output by publishing in international journals. He provides us with evidence regarding this move towards English publications, which necessarily translates into a decrease of publications in Portuguese. Another key ingredient to achieving this high impact is to continue to encourage interdisciplinary work with events such as Intercontinental Academia and departments such as the Institute of Advanced Studies. In his distinctive succinct yet eloquent manner, Professor Till Roenneberg echoes these thoughts during the Q&A. He argues that research of the future does not lie in individual but rather in collaborative thinking. However, in order to work effectively in teams, individual researchers must first and foremost become experts in their field so that they are ‘unique’ in what they do. Strongly advocating for interdisciplinary research, Prof Roenneberg argues that this need not imply that researchers become ‘the jack of all trades’ (and hence master of none) but rather that they are prepared to combine their knowledge with colleagues in departments well beyond their comfort zone. This cross-disciplinary approach will lead to much ‘bigger questions’ being made, which in turn will encourage marvellously innovative and high impact factor publications. 

Expanding this notion of interdisciplinary research and the multi-faceted scholar of the future, Prof Zago at USP and the newly appointed Minister of Education Renato Janine Ribeiro seem to long for a more holistic approach to education where students’ learning encompasses a wider field of disciplines so as to better prepare them for the world of tomorrow. This seems to hark back to a previous scholarly approach when the social elite was educated in a much broader field of study - including the applied sciences, humanities, and the arts - in an attempt to better understand the world around them and become well-rounded intellectuals. However, over the centuries and in particular as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, public education has witness 2 distinct changes: firstly, an expansion of education for the masses, and secondly a professionalization of the market economy.  During the 19th and 20th century the world saw a mushrooming of universities across the globe, making education (and even higher education) more accessible to the people. This accessibility came hand in hand with an academic specialisation, where departments, schools and faculties trained and prepared the workforce of the future. As a natural consequence of this increased specialisation, these faculties, schools and departments grew more and more distant from one another, so a cross-disciplinary dialogue became increasingly difficult if not meaningless for research output. Events such as ICA and the expansion of Institutes of Advanced Studies across the globe respond directly to this need to dialogue with other fields as a means of expanding our own knowledge. 

University AxisIt is clear that the event hosted at USP’s Institute of Advanced Studies in April 2015 was warmly welcomed by both scholars and managerial staff alike. During his workshop, Minister Renato Janine Ribeiro congratulated the immersive nature of ICA and noted the productivity of the event overall. As both a political figure and a philosopher (PhD, University of São Paulo) he feels strongly about the role that universities play in shaping a country. He presents us with some striking figures: in 1968 Brazil had around 100,000 students attending university, whereas today over 22% of the population graduates from university, be it from a State, Federal or Private Higher Education institution. For a nation such as Brazil, with its undeniable socio-economic challenges, this increase of university attendance means that higher education no longer lies in the hands of the elite. Nevertheless, Brazil still has a long way to go and the Ministry of Education would like to see a much broader expansion of the university attendance. Minister Ribeiro gives a vivid example of why education does not always capture the attention of the people. Unlike health, a poor education is hard to pinpoint, where those that suffer from a poor education remain unaware of their academic ‘disability’ and the detrimental consequences a lack of education will have on their future. Minister Ribeiro attests that education lies at the heart of the social inclusionist approach of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), which aims to expand the nation’s middle class and eradicate extreme levels of poverty in the country.  Historically, power discourses imposed by the State or heads of the Church may have encouraged social inequality and an acceptance of one’s marginalised social and academic status. Today, however, the government and the market economy have the tools to pull people out of poverty and shift the mind-set of those most in need.  Much like access to water, electricity or the internet, Minister Ribeiro believes that access to higher education should be universal, suggesting that if ‘50% of the population goes to university, this would be a good thing’.  This increase in university attendance seems to echo recent UNESCO estimates that foresee that over the next 30 years more people will be graduating from university worldwide since the beginning of history. Despite these positive projections and an expansion of higher education across the globe, some education scholars have noted a lamentable devaluation of the university degree, so that in some societies a university degree is no longer sufficient, and students are forced to pursue post-graduate degrees or even doctoral degrees just to ensure employment, meaning that some parts of the world are witnessing a Higher Education inflation so to speak.  Be that as it may, Minister Ribeiro is certain that widespread university education is the key to success and his concern centres round the social equality and sustainability of the Brazilian education system as a whole. He ensures that Brazil – unlike some other markets – is ready to accommodate this growing number of university graduates and that the local economy needs more trained professionals as the country continues to grow and develop. To conclude his talk, he suggests that higher education need not be so deterministic in our future and employment prospects, a stigma that unfortunately continues to haunt Brazilian graduates today: architecture graduates must work as architects, linguists must work with languages, economists must work in finance, and so on. Instead, he calls for a broadening of the academic experience and encourages a multidisciplinary approach to learning, whereby future graduates will be more prepared and flexible to face the ever-changing world that lies ahead of them.