What is the mission of universities?

Some time ago, I had a chat with a co-worker. His lecture contract ends this year. The department is happy with his performance. He is happy teaching, even though he has a very high teaching load. His performance is great, he is satisfied with his job. Only one factor, unrelated to productivity, is the cause for his departure. The lack of 3 letters: P H D. Without a PhD he can’t teach anymore, as he has reached the maximum amount of years a “non-initiated” is allowed to transmit knowledge to students. This is someone who would call teaching a teaching opportunity, and research a research load. Contrast this with the mass of academics who talk about “research opportunity” and “teaching load” Isn’t there something wrong in the system when we ask qualified and satisfied employees to leave? If the purpose of universities is to educate, why let people go who are good at it ? This inconsistency, highlights the need of universities to reconsider their purpose and the value they are providing to their various stakeholders. It is time to consider if the mission of universities need to be redefined.

In Good to Great Jim Collins explains that companies who are great are those that understand what they are best in and what they are not best in. Looking at universities it is not always clear if they have figured this out. Most universities provide a mixture of teaching, research, consulting, and other services without a clear focus on what they are best in. The recent trends in higher education, increased mobility of students, rising tuition costs in the US and UK, debt crisis of US students, and the technological advances are highlighting the need for universities to reconsider what their mission is.

Mission statements describe the purpose of organizations, the value it brings to its stakeholders, and its geographic reach. This is not only common to profit organization, but also a practice among universities. For example, my local university states the following as their mission in their strategic program 2017 – 2021.

Maastricht University (UM) is a young university in the heart of Europe, with a distinct global perspective and a strong focus on innovative education and research strategies. We see ourselves first and foremost as an open and inclusive academic community, striving for a good mix between Dutch, European and other international students, and addressing European and global issues in our education and research programmes.

It places itself as an important euro-regional player with a global reach. Its purpose is to provide high quality education and research by focusing on these two aspects. For its stakeholders it provides an ‘open and inclusive community’. Reading the mission statement and knowing the university I reckon that it wants to be first an important European player, and only afterwards a global player.

Universities should create educated personalities

An analyses of the mission statements of universities would shed light what universities consider is their place in society. While some universities might include a future perspective in their mission statement, such an analysis of mission statement will, in my opinion, reveal the current state of the educational industry. Looking at the future, Fred D’Agostino (Professor of Humanities at The University of Queensland) addresses what the mission of universities should be. In his TEDxUQ talk, he argues that most of the discourse about universities is economic. Parents encourage young people to attend university in order to get a better job. It’s about being able to have a profession and put bread on the table. This discourse is in line with what universities were in the 19th and part of the 20th century. But in Fred’s mind, universities should have a higher calling: They need to deliver educated personality. With this he means that individuals need to be able to participate in society after attending university. They need to be aware and discuss daily issues. By ‘knowing and understanding things’, they can participate in society instead of just watching it pas by.

I do not fully agree with this. What Fred D’Agostino describe should be the mission of high school. High school should provide pupils with enough knowledge and curiosity to understand economic, political, and cultural trends. Universities should deepen this understanding and provide a space for students to specialize in an area. That being said, I agree with him that the ability to participate in society, following political, economic, and cultural discussions is important. My high school education allowed me to opt out of ‘cultural’ classes (arts and music) at the age of 14. I made use of this, and dropped first music and later on art. This decision makes it difficult for me to participate in an aspect of society. This became obvious during a recent visit to the Marres Gallery in Maastricht. They had an exposition of The painted bird . This is not something I do often. I visited the exposition with an American couch surfer. We had great talks about the meaning of the various wall paintings. We talked about European identity, cultural background, political turmoil and the fear coupled with it. One room remained a mystery for me. She explained that it was all about pop culture of 70s. It contained an iconic picture I didn’t recognize. This is an aspect of society I’m not well versed in and therefore can not participate in that discussion. I consider this a lack of my curiosity for the arts and music, rather than a lack of education. Howbeit, you could argue that secondary education killed my curiosity for music and arts. I’m not good in it, but as I enjoy reading I could have partaken in this discussion if the focus would not have been to produce artistic work but to read about it.

Universities are in the business of meaning making

Continuing the discussion on the mission of universities, Glenn Platt  at TEDxMiami talks about the business of higher education. Glenn Platt presented a couple of examples of companies that seem to be operating in an industry, but after further inspections should be categorized differently. For example

Firechat seems to be a communication company, but is actually disrupting the internet by allowing communication via users through bluetooth, and WiFi reach.
Tesla on first sight looks like a transportation company, but its true business is creating and distributing power making it an utility company.

Glenn Platt points to the collaborative processes that are in place in FireChat and Tesla. In 2014 Elan Musk decided to open all of Tesla’s patents as part of the open source movement . While from a rational economic perspective this might not make sense (Why share your secrets with your competitors?), innovations thrive from collaboration . Sharing ‘trade secrets’ by opening patents should increases collaboration and hence help spur innovation.
Collaborative processes in the higher education industry refers to collaboration in science and education. While this is already common in research settings with researchers from different universities collaborating on research projects, collaborating on educational activities is less common. Consequently around the world thousands of educators create their own introduction courses in economics, psychology, philosophy, international law etc. Collaborative processes entail the creation and use of open educational resources. Hence, these open educational resources would be improved by its users, potentially leading to glocal open educational resources, open educational resources that are relevant for global users, with addendum to local contexts.

Glenn Platt also states that mesh structures are the structure of future companies and industries. FireChat, the app produced by OpenGarden and used by protesters in HongKong and other cities fearing government surveillance and shut down of traditional communication services , is based on this structure. Instead of cellular networks it uses individual smartphone’s Bluetooth and wireless capabilities to connect users. The main idea is that transmission of information (e.g., messages) passes through individual users smartphones instead of telecommunication lines.
In a mesh telecommunication structure every smart phone becomes a point-of-access which connects the ultimate sender and ultimate receiver of an information packet. In the current cellular networks, smartphones are end-points, making use of the connectivity but not enabling or creating it. While cellular connectivity is a global network that provides internet access, mesh networks are constraints through its local participants. Nevertheless if connectivity through mesh networks becomes mainstream, then it is possible to send messages around the word using it. If you bear in mind the small world phenomena or the 6 degree of Separation it is not so inconceivable that mesh networks can have global reach and replace the current cellular technology.

In the higher education industry, currently students are the end-points receiving knowledge spread by teachers. In a mesh structure, every person has the potential to become a point-of-access through which knowledge flows. This does not only blurs the roles between teacher and student, but also between researcher (as ‘producer of knowledge’) and industry and government (as ‘users of knowledge’). The role of creating, transmitting, acquiring, and applying knowledge could be adopted by every person depending on the situation. Consequently, the places at which knowledge is created and transmitted become irrelevant. Learning will not be limited to rooms with blackboards, but open to all spaces in which people meet.

Glenn argues that to provide a better and free university education, higher ed institutes should be adopting collaborative processes and mesh structure. In mesh education there will be no campus and silos. Looking from the outside it will not be possible to distinguish between student and teachers. Business and classrooms will merge into one, and research labs will look like companies. Elements of this exists already. For example Skillshare and Udemy  provide all individuals with a platform to distribute their knowledge to others. Unfortunately, the learning offered on those platforms is largely linear, resembling the standard lecture format, sometimes spiced up with project work. Some courses or programs at physical learning institutes are set up so that students build a business .
For Glenn Platt universities are in the business of making meaning . He foresees that the role of universities will not be anymore to teach students and disseminate knowledge, but to validate learning experiences. This validation could be in the form of traditional exams, portfolio assessment, credentialing teachers and places of learning. To add to this, I think universities could also provide the space for learning.

Paulinum, By Concord – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Even though, I agree with Glenn Platt on a number of points, higher education institutes are most of the time not solely teaching or research institutes but a mixture of both. I also think he did not consider the role higher education institutes play in their local community. For example, in the first week of December 2017 in the center of Leipizig the university church, Paulinium, was re-opened, after having being destroyed during the communist area. Being located in the center of the city it was purposefully created to serve the academic community and the local community. It functions as an assembly room for the university with oratory, exposition, faculty rooms, and a church.

What now?

While both speakers provide a suggestion of what the mission of universities should be (‘prepare students to participate in society’ and ‘make meaningful experiences’) as a researcher I feel a bit lost in them. Reflecting on my career decisions, I stayed longer in academia than friends and family because I like to discover knowledge. Academics are given a tremendous amount of freedom. Nobody blinks if I go home after lunch to take a nap and then work. I work in the evenings to take time off during the day for my family. I kept on working on my papers while being unemployed. This was hard to understand for some people unfamiliar with the academic world. Could I see myself in a mesh education system? Yes, with a modification: Research labs and classrooms should become indistinguishable

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