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Hope and the grand challenges: the (new) priorities of the contemporary university

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  • James Arvanitakis, Western Sydney University, Australia
  • Sharon Rider, Uppsala University, Sweden
  • David Hornsby, Carleton University, Canada
  • Søren Smedegaard Ernst Bengtsen
  • Ryan Gildersleve, University of Denver, United States
The year of 2020 has highlighted the brutal realities confronting our contemporary society: from the wildfires in Australia reinforcing the consequences of human-driven climate change, to the assassination of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani that has led to new-found tensions in the Middle East, to the outbreak of the coronavirus and the growing political upheaval as highlighted in the impeachment proceedings (and subsequent acquittal) of President Trump, the challenges facing liberal democracies have never been more pronounced.

These grand challenges cut across political, social, economic and cultural spheres and are accompanied by an unprecedented loss of trust in expert institutions (Pew 2019). This has occurred as the neoliberal experiment has sidelined institutions such as universities that are driven by the public good. In fact, the impacts of neoliberalism have manifested themselves in many ways that would have been difficult to foresee: from the focus (some would say obsession) on international rankings, casualisation of faculty that now sees an increasing reliance on precarious labour, attacks on academic freedom, cultural wars and questions regarding student preparedness.

Additionally, the rising costs of higher education have placed strain on graduates and have many prospective students questioning the value of undertaking study. This has been aggravated by the ongoing criticism by certain elements of the private sector that argue universities are not producing ‘work ready graduates’ as if the primary role of higher education is an apprenticeship for large, multinational organisations.

This sense of universities being under siege is reflected across many other institutions of liberal democracies including the mainstream media and the public service. The media, for example, is increasingly seen in partisan terms. Different political actors accuse each other of producing fake news when they see reports they disagree with. If Benedict Anderson (1983) argued that the printing press led to national newspapers that created an ‘imagined community’ having national conversations, the splintering of the media landscape is directly resulting a growth of political ‘echo chambers’ and a breakdown in the connections we had.

Within this context, many universities are reflecting on the very reason for existing. This includes work on the cultures they represent and are (re)producing. That is, do higher education institutions further cement power relations and create greater inequalities while, as Thomas Frank (2019) argues, echoing the myth of a meritocracy. If, as former IBM chairman Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. (2003) argued, ‘culture is everything’, then the exact culture of the contemporary university is one of uncertainty.

It is within this context that universities and the scholars that occupy these institutions, have the opportunity to re-establish their authority. That is, move away from the neoliberal framework of competition, commodification, consumerism, and corporatization that has driven many of university priorities over the last three decades. This starts with re-establishing frameworks that our institutions were built on: cooperation, civic duty and stewardship as well as prioritising the pedagogy of the citizen-scholar (Arvanitakis and Hornsby 2016). It is from this perspective that universities have the potential to lead in confronting the grand challenges and promote a sense of hope that stimulates engagement and empowerment rather than cynicism and distrust.

In other words, universities should use this moment of being ‘under siege’ and stake their claim for what they want to be, how they want to function and outline a new social contract between our institutions, the government, the public and other important stakeholders. In so doing, they can outline their vision, not as discreet units in competition for students and research funding, but as an interdependent sector whose focus is responding to the many grand challenges. This should include a re-imagination of what the contemporary curriculum is and how to engage with a student body who feel pressure to complete their degrees and ‘find work’ to pay off debt.
While such goals sound idealistic and lofty, there are already many examples where such approaches have already been embraced. The ‘citizen scholar’ program, for example, emerged at Western Sydney University as a way of promoting both scholarship and citizenship. This pedagogical program, rather than being seen as proprietary knowledge, has been openly shared with other universities in Australia, India, South Africa and Canada. Likewise, universities are finding ‘shared research facilities’ much more efficient and effective than individually chasing funds.

While there is no doubt that universities feel they are under siege, a commitment to a new approach means that this could be an important turning point for higher education. Anything less would place our institutions, and democracy, in a precarious position.

Anderson, B. (1983 Imagine Communities, Verso, London.
Arvanitakis, J. and Hornsby, D. (2016) The Citizen Scholar, Palgrave, London.
Frank, T. ‘Is Meritocracy to Blame for Our Yawning Class Divide?’, New York Times, 10 September
2019, accessed from https://www .nytimes.com/2019/09/10/books/review/the-
Gerstner, F.T. (2003) ‘Culture is everything’, Harvard Business School, Alumni Report, accessed from https://www.alumni.hbs.edu/stories/Pages/story-bulletin.aspx?num=2039
Pew Research Centre (2019) An update on our research into trust, facts and democracy, accessed from https://www .pewresearch.org/2019/06/05/an-update-on-our-research-into-trust-facts- and-democracy/
Original languageEnglish
Publication yearJun 2022
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022
EventPhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference: Universities under seige - Uppsala, Sweden
Duration: 7 Jun 20229 Jun 2022


ConferencePhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference

    Research areas

  • University, Higher education, Hope, Grand challenges, Social contract, Society, Culture, Academic, Citizenship

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