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What is a 'good' university – and who needs to know?

27 Sep 2021 | Dr Kay Hack (PFHEA) Dr Catherine (Kay) Hack opens the debate ahead of our #AdvanceHE_chat #LTHEChat Wednesday, 29 September 2021, 20:00-21:00 BST

We want our children to go to a ‘good’ university. We want to work at a good university. Employers want good graduates. Communities want good neighbours. Governments want universities to produce good research and contribute to national wealth and economic development. Undoubtedly, vice-chancellors want a top slot in the Good University Guide.

Contrary to many reports, high quality, engaged teaching has been taking place throughout lockdown. HE practitioners have been reflecting on what worked well, listening to all of their students, many of whom benefited from more flexible approaches to learning, and intentionally re-designing teaching and assessment to maximise success for all students. How can we change the outdated narrative predominating in mainstream media that higher education is predicated on passive delivery to large groups of serried ranks of students, that exams have to be a summative, closed book, regurgitation of knowledge to have validity, and that universities have been closed for the past 18 months? 

So what do we mean by a ‘good’ university and, good for whom?

In ‘The Good University’ (2019) Raewyn Connell argues that a Good University should be democratic, engaged, truthful, creative and sustainable, that is, a university should be both morally and functionally good. Many learning and teaching communities, including #LTHEchat, SEDA, and discipline networks such as the biosciences and engineering education research networks, to name a few that I am familiar with in the UK, represent all of these values through their inclusive, passionate and generous ways of practicing and thinking.

What can we learn from others?

Cindy Spence Vallance (Advance HE) of Métis heritage (one of three categories of Indigenous Peoples in Canada along with Inuit and First Nations), draws from Indigenous ways of group learning to ensure that learning and teaching is inclusive, as illustrated by the circle process:

Meeting in circle, everyone can see everyone else present, unlike meetings or classrooms where everyone sits in rows, and the only person everyone can see is the leader or teacher. Everyone’s voice is sought, welcomed and respected. There is a saying that “everyone in the circle is of the same height.” The circle acts to disrupt hierarchy and power imbalances. There is space and time for the most minoritised views to be expressed. We accord respect to all views in the circle because all beings are due that respect.” 

(Source: Everything is alive and everyone is related: Indigenous knowing and inclusive education. Jean-Paul Restoule, Professor and Chair of Indigenous education at University of Victoria, Canada[CV1] 

From Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education, Knowledges and Relations e-book, edited by Malinda S. Smith, University of Alberta, 2013.

The need to use anticipatory or futures thinking is a key sustainability competency recognised by UNESCO. Long-term thinking is a core mind-set for many Indigenous cultures. “Indigenous peoples also hold a strong sense of responsibility for intergenerational equity – the principle that every generation holds the Earth in common with members of the present generation and with other generations, past and future. Their knowledge and practices are guided by the principle of how one’s action will affect the wellbeing of generations to come.”

 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Jacob Morgan challenges future leaders to ‘humanize’ as well as ‘futurize’. While we want leaders to engage in long-term thinking and embrace technology, we also need our leaders to put people at the core of everything. This includes being able to lead for, and with diversity, attract and retain talent by investing in people and leading for the greater good.

This also resonates with many Indigenous cultures who believe that leadership is based on humility,

The leader does not self-nominate as a leader, does not take credit for work, but enables others. There is no self-promotion. Humility means that great leadership is behind the scenes” (The Conversation, 2019)

Is there a disconnect between what is happening and valued on campus and what is reported in some media?

Our graduates will have a critical role in developing viable, inclusive and equitable solutions to the economic, social and environmental challenges the world is facing. We have a responsibility to equip them with the skills to critique norms and practices, learn from others and seek to understand their needs, perspectives and actions whilst reflecting on how their own values and perceptions inform their actions. Everyone, from student to Board, has a role in modelling these competencies to create tolerant environments where we can all learn.  

As universities from across the globe start to articulate to all their stakeholders how they are approaching sustainability through their environmental, social and economic actions, we need a strong narrative and leadership that demonstrate that everyone has a role to play in developing sustainable futures that are good for all.

Join us on Twitter for the Advance HE #AdvanceHE_chat #LTHEChat Wednesday, 29 September 2021, 20:00-21:00 BST, to share your views on what is a good university.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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