The great university challenge – adapt or lose impact

The future of universities as primary agents of change by two leaders of the PLuS Alliance
Thursday, February 13, 2020

Universities drive much of the world’s most innovative research, bring talented people together and prepare young people to be changemakers but they must reform and adapt if they are to address increasingly complex global challenges.

This is the central contention of a new book – The University Challenge – jointly authored by the Principal and President of King’s College London, Professor Ed Byrne, and a former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke.

Byrne and Clarke are also leading agents of change in the PLuS Alliance, a global partnership that brings together King’s, Arizona State University and UNSW Sydney to pursue solutions to pressing global challenges.

“All of the creative and innovative capacities of humanity need to be aligned and applied as never before in human history,” Byrne and Clarke write. “Universities must find a higher gear and not only do things differently, but do different things, if they are to continue to play a major role in making the world a better place.”

The authors build their case for new thinking in universities by noting that change is all around us – in the way we work, in communication and travel, families and social structures, health and the fact that we are living longer, in arts, culture and cuisine, poverty, climate change and energy use, and in global politics and conflict. 

“We recognise that universities are conservative institutions at their heart and their vitality comes almost entirely through the intellectual endeavours of their staff and students. Change in universities cannot be simply mandated from the top but must engage the whole university community. This can only be done if both the value and the moral imperative that drive change are well understood across the university community.”

Byrne and Clarke, both the sons of UK coalminers, reached the heights of the higher education sector via markedly different paths – Byrne by extending a hunger for learning he developed in becoming a medical doctor, and Clarke by launching a political and academic career on the back of a passion for student politics.

The authors, in arguing that high-quality universities are the best way to help our world deal with the enormous challenges of accelerating change, set out ways in which this should be done:

  1. Universities should place, at the centre of their own missions, addressing the challenges of a rapidly changing world.
  2. Governments should regularly make a clear statement of the contribution which they hope universities will make to developing the society and economy of the country and indicate ways in which they will promote and support that.

The University Challenge, the first title in a new series by Pearson Publications, comes at a time, as Byrne and Clarke note, when ”many people have lost confidence in universities”.

Speaking after the book’s launch in London, Byrne said: “We’ve attempted to capture the major issues and put forward some ideas to generate some discussion. It definitely is not a panacea but we’ve looked at it from the viewpoint of government, institutions and people who are concerned with high-order issues and loss of confidence in the university sector.  Universities have the capacity for interdisciplinarity development greater any other institution.  This is not empty rhetoric.”

Co-author Clarke said: “In this incredible rapid process of change in our society, with technology, AI, unprecedented challenges such as new diseases, who is best equipped to confront these challenges? Governments, corporations, NGOs are not the best organisations to look at this in the round. It’s universities firstly because they do the research to understand what is happening and secondly because they put forward ideas for solutions.  Universities around the world are educating and training vast numbers of the population to deal with the changes that lie ahead.”

One of the PLuS Alliance’s flagship initiatives TEDILondon – a new type of engineering university that sets out to attract a new type of non-traditional student for a contemporary  technology-enabled program – will be officially launched in London next month.

Contact: Bisi Olulode, Communications Officer Olabisi.olulode@plusalliance.org