Difficult Conversations in Ivory Towers: University and Civil Society

One might suggest Universities are simply having a tough time with reality. Where do we ‘fit’ now in Civil Society. Have we noticed that Civil Society has changed, is changing.

Universities are having a tough time. I know this because the EDUCAUSE workshop we were running next week has been cancelled due to small numbers, and I don’t THINK it was because it was simply too tedious for the US audience. Apparently there just isn’t enough money in the system to allow for that extra day of workshops for many people.

One might suggest Universities are simply having a tough time with reality. Where do we ‘fit’ now in Civil Society? Have we noticed that Civil Society has changed, is changing? Budgets are tight, government is weary of paying for the intangible benefits when there are so many pressing tangible needs and the commercial world (in the broadest sense) tires of ‘re-training’ graduates for a world of work.

What strikes me most about working in Universities is the earnest complacency. There are people, of course, who work at the sharp edge of their professions, advising teachers in the schools, doing a day a week at the counselling service, working in businesses delivering customised language and translation services, a myriad of different ‘real-life’ implementations of their subject knowledge. And then there are the rest.

And it isn’t about the soft woolly social sciences versus hard science. Both can be equally detached from the societies they serve. And they do ‘serve’. My current institution is developing an exciting vision of its future, including a Learning & Teaching Strategy, or Student Experience Strategy or whatever one might choose to call it.

There will be the usual round of cynical protestations about threats to academic freedom and the independence of the academy. The resistance to the ‘digital’ move, the wholesale adoption of the virtual learning environment to support all programmes is part of this tough reality. The difficulty for educational developers is knowing whether to talk at a personal and practical level or a theoretical level. The apparent resistance to ‘working digitally’ is often a simple failure to grasp a shift in some of the fundamental realities of the changing nature of Higher Education, the shifting origins of students (apparent ‘digital natives’) and the changing daily reality in work places.

The analogy of Universities being much like the Church, the last guardians of many significant aspects of our heritages and some fairly appalling abuses too, strikes me as rather apparent today. The ‘denial’, and it is often subtle, is not JUST about the relative merits of adopting contemporary communications technology to support learners, it is surely about the loss of the privileged position of the ‘sage on the stage’, the Savant Professor. We aren’t going to make a meaningful impression on the students’ experience without an open and frank debate about the nature of contemporary Higher Education.

An institutional Learning & Teaching Strategy should be a conversation about the nature of Higher Education, the nature of our knowledge society and our specific role, as an institution, within it. Where we are in Civil Society. And yes, we’ll have a tough time having that conversation.