Re-envisaging the Role of the University

To Know is to TransformMore than a week ago, I attended a conference weekend in tiny Winchester, mouth fully named: “For People and Planet: Not Profit and Self-Destruction. Can Universities make the move towards, or even lead ‘transition‘? organised by the Crisis Forum. The speakers, panel debates and small group discussions addressed the following question: what role can, and should, universities play in times of climate change, approaching peak oil and, more generally, an unfair and unsustainable social and economic system?

Ben Brangwyn, the Transition Network co-founder, asked whether we need “Universities of Transition” that lead the way forward to a sustainable society through teaching and research, or “Universities in Transition” that try to become more sustainable and self-sufficient themselves as a community.

I think you can’t make this distinction. As communities of people gathered together to learn and think, universities have so much potential to be on the forefront of the “transition” to sustainability. Universities could be proposing and critical assessing solutions, policies, technological innovations. They could also start connecting more to the local community and local issues and initiatives, because tackling global issues starts in your own backyard.
And if uni’s talk the talk, they have to walk the walk and be “in transition” at the same time. Universities could then become real-life laboratories of sustainability, exploring on a small scale what works and what doesn’t.

Students/staff initiatives like Transition Edinburgh Universtity are doing amazing work, but in order to really make an impact, both within the uni and beyond, I think we need to move much more “from the edge to centre”, as speaker Dougald Hine (“writer, internet entrepreneur, informal learner and founder of organisations with over-the-top names”, in his own words) put it, and (help) transform the university institution itself.

Universities should stop feeding into Business as Usual but question and address it thoroughly. I think that, considering the scale of current social and environmental problems, sustainability should be at the heart of the university curriculum. (Almost) every discipline has a contribution to make. Of course, knowledge should sometimes be pursued for its own sake, but currently, the balance has tipped too far: pressing real-world issues like environmental degradation, climate change, peak oil and inequality, cannot be shovelled aside any longer.

Nick Maxwell, a retired Philosophy professor from LSE, argued during the conference that university teaching and research should focus, first and foremost, on progressing to “the best possible world”, and on promoting what is really valuable in life, for ourselves and others. Otherwise, it loses all its relevance. Other conference participants had more specific suggestions for a “transition curriculum”: cooperating, building community, driving and communicating change, biomimicry, horticulture… But changing the approach to learning might be just as important as changing the content. Participants argued for collective problem-solving rather than top-down teaching (because the answers to the crises are not clear-cut), value-based and experiential learning rather than strictly fact-based and finally a systems-approach, linking up different levels, scales and processes, rather than disciplinary tunnel visions. Universities should, in short, be “teaching complexity”.

Of course, ideas to transform academics have been bouncing around ever since our 60’s counterparts broke lose. But sadly, almost 50 years down the line, many of their criticisms are still valid. Now that the anti-cuts movement is growing and students are becoming increasingly politicised and demanding (admittedly, that seems more the case in England than in Scotland), this might be the right time to really (help) transform the University institution.

I think we need to explore what and how we, as students, researchers, lecturers, actually want and need learn – about sustainability, but also in general.

So how and where to start? In stead of waiting for the University to respond and connect more to the “world outside”, a group of students in Edinburgh has decided to follow the example of The Really Free School in London and the Really Open University in Leeds, amongst others. We’re planning to run free courses and workshops alongside the university curriculum, led by ourselves but (hopefully) with the help of keen academics, researchers and thinkers and do-ers from beyond the university. If you’d like to join in the discussion or attend or run courses, get in touch through the Facebook group.

Exciting times ahead!

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