Some of the world’s greatest thinkers, from Aristotle to Shakespeare, have recognised and celebrated the relationship between today’s lessons and tomorrow’s rewards.

History has taught us that, as a society as much as individuals, we reap what we sow, and through most of our recent past, humanity’s philosophical fields have been tended by the universities of the world. Chair of Universities Australia – the peak body representing the university sector – Professor Deborah Terry, well understands the multifaceted responsibility universities carry. 

“Universities educate the professionals of tomorrow and ensure they’ve got the skills and capabilities they need, not only to be successful into the future, but to help shape that future,” says Prof Terry, who is also Vice Chancellor of Curtin University. 

“Universities have a responsibility to drive industries and create the jobs of the future, but we also have an absolute commitment to enrich the communities in which we are embedded.” 

University of South Australia Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd shares that sense of what a university should be in the world, emphasising the symbiotic relationship between universities and wider society. 

“The best universities provide the knowledge and innovation societies need to flourish and move forward,” he says. “In turn, society guides and decides those areas of enquiry that are most important and most in need of enrichment.”

That triple social responsibility of universities – to educate, innovate and enrich – may be easy to articulate, but in a world of technical disruption and societal upheaval, putting words into action is more challenging than ever. How does the university of today educate, innovate and enrich the world of tomorrow, when so many possible characteristics of that future world are dauntingly unpredictable? 

Future Proofing 101: Inclusivity 

The past few decades have transformed society to a degree not seen since the Industrial Revolution. Established business models have been overhauled or obliterated; the sharing and application of knowledge has shifted beyond recognition; and many of our relationships, both personal and professional, have become asynchronous and distant, strangely, almost alienly, detached from time and space.  

The world is getting smaller, and as it shrinks, the opportunity for diverse experiences is growing. 

“I say and say often, it doesn’t matter what field you’re going into, you will be in a global workforce,” Prof Terry says.

Embracing and enabling this new professional diversity is both an opportunity and challenge, but, as Prof Lloyd – himself an Irishman abroad – explains, the opportunity and challenge each encourage the same response. 

“The key thing is to be inclusive,” Prof Lloyd says. “If you’re going to support society, you have to reflect society. It’s not so much about affirmative action to ensure every minority is represented in an organisation, it’s more about making sure anybody who’s got the capacity to learn and succeed is embraced by a university.”

Building such diversity takes different forms. UniSA, for instance, has striven to recruit as widely as possible, from undergraduate students to the most senior staff positions. 

“We have been conscious of this, and UniSA now has one of the most internationally diverse populations in Australia,” Prof Lloyd says. “That runs right through the classroom, researchers and the professional staff, and that bolsters reputation and respect outside of our borders.” 

Curtin has embraced a similar philosophy, but rather than bringing the world to their own doorstep, they have taken themselves to the world. 

“We’ve established campuses around the Indian Ocean rim, in Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai and Mauritius,” Prof Terry says. 

“In part that is to deliver educational opportunities in those regions but it’s also about being able to offer students at our main campus in Perth the opportunity to spend a semester studying at one of our other campuses, to experience diversity.” 

Innovation alone is not enough  

The benefits and beauty of diversity are simple – drawing on a multiplicity of perspectives and array of experiences expands society’s cerebral toolkit, fostering an academic cross pollination to deliver fresh approaches to challenges old and new. Nonetheless, identifying which of society’s challenges should be prioritised remains a question with many answers. 

“There was a mathematician in Dublin in the 1840s, William Rowan Hamilton, whose work was on quaternions and planetary motion and had no application until we landed on the moon,” Prof Lloyd says. 

“If Hamilton had written a grant application saying I’m going to land somebody on the moon in 120 years, he wouldn’t get the grant. Even so, that fundamental research underpinned future discovery.”

Similar lessons litter the literature in most research fields, just-so stories reinforcing Einstein’s famous quip: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?” Nonetheless, while the diversity of research might be expanding, related budgets are not, and more than ever, modern university researchers do need to know at least a little of what they’re doing before they start. 

Professor Calum Drummond is Deputy Vice Chancellor Research and Innovation at RMIT and former Chief of CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering, and believes intellectual curiosity is at its most effective when it is guided by those it is most likely to impact. 

“The conduct of excellent research is necessary but not sufficient,” he says. “It’s about what you do with that excellent research to benefit others beyond the academic community. So, our focus is very much on what people call mission-driven research – research where you have got the end purpose in mind when you’re doing the research.”

Recognition of the value of mission-driven research has increased in recent years, and universities around the world are now working more closely with industry, government and social partners to address specific issues directly through applied research. 

“There is much more of a partnering model today,” Prof Drummond says. “And it’s not about being beholden to these partners but engaging with them to help decide what capability we should be developing right now, to help inform the areas that are emerging and ensure research remains relevant.”

Prof Terry agrees, suggesting universities have both the privilege of, and responsibility for, managing a research agenda aimed at, in simple terms, making the world a better place.

"In the Australian context and in many other countries, universities are responsible for a large proportion of the research that takes place," she says. "So, it’s got to be connected to the broader innovation ecosystem, not just to drive the economic future, but also to deliver social prosperity."

Nonetheless, within this modern mission focus, many researchers maintain a healthy respect for the William Rowan Hamiltons of the world, and the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake will likely remain a proud component of universities into the future. Prof Terry endorses a balance between purpose-driven and ‘blue sky’ research, and while UniSA has seen close partnerships with industry lead to diverse innovation, Prof Lloyd also stresses that shouldn’t be the only way to explore the unknown.

“There are plenty of people who are academics because they choose to be academics,” Prof Lloyd says. “They take the curiosity driven piece and then find where the application is. So, while research for purpose is fantastic because you can see how it translates and it gives you impact and innovation in real terms, there’s every bit as much space for the individual whose research is just advancing knowledge. They might find it difficult in certain policy frameworks to secure research funding, but it doesn’t diminish the value of their research.”

Teaching people to learn, teaching people to cope 

Research, through partnerships or otherwise, is a key pillar of the university community. As Prof Terry says, it’s “about building an understanding of fundamental questions that held you back in the past, so you know how to address them in the future; it’s about finding new and better ways to solve the challenges facing the world”.  

As inspirational as that sentiment is, it also brings with it a problem – each time a new way of doing is found, it must then be taught, and the faster innovation occurs, the more challenging that educational translation becomes. 

“Meeting skills needs is a very tricky tightrope for us to walk, because the skills needed today versus skills needed in five years’ time can be quite different,” Prof Lloyd says. 

As the rate of innovation has increased in recent years, universities have had to adjust, and more adjustment will be needed in the future. Gone are the days when everything required for a lifelong career could be crammed into an undergraduate course, or even explored in a postgraduate degree. Learning now, and even more so into the future, is a lifelong process, and as Prof Terry says, preparing people for that process is a core responsibility of the modern university. 

“We aren’t teaching people to do, or even to think, we are teaching people to learn. We are in a period of rapid change and graduates are going to have to upskill, reskill, cross-skill into the future. To do that in a way that is agile and successful is very hard – you need to be building on a strong foundation for the capacity for learning itself.”

Part of building that capacity, says Prof Terry, comes from engaging with a diverse range of educational dimensions as part of the university experience. “We need to combine depth and expertise in a particular field with breadth of understanding of how that field relates to others,” she says.  

This philosophy has led to increased awareness of the need for cross-disciplinary approaches to guiding the graduates of the future and Prof Lloyd says restructuring being undertaken as part of UniSA’s new strategic plan, Enterprise25, is a direct response to this. 

“I want everybody to have the opportunity to get some complementary, extra-disciplinary education,” he says. “For example, it might be you’re in pharmacy and want to learn about marketing in terms of its influence on pharmacy practices today. So, it’s the notion of a good disciplinary depth, built on rigorous contemporary research, plus that little bit of extra information you need to be slightly more potent than you might have been.” 

Tellingly, Prof Lloyd also believes one of the key responsibilities for the university of the future will be to teach graduates how to cope with the swirling uncertainty of the diverse, hyper-innovative professional world they’ll ultimately have to negotiate. 

“It is our role as educators to do all that we can to advance society,” he says. “Education gives people knowledge; a solid basis on which to build a career; and it shows the values of professionalism, scholarship, engagement, social justice, sustainability, innovation and openness.

“As part of that, we need to help graduates foster their own wellbeing, teach them about societal resilience. I think that’s one of the biggest pressures on our students today – they are going into a pressure cooker environment as they graduate, so we need to ask ourselves, ‘How can we give people the means to look after their own wellbeing, emotionally and mentally?’

“Graduates should go out into the world with the knowledge, the opportunity, the strength of mind and character to be the voice of change so they can really contribute to making a better future for everyone”.

Digital education: beyond convenience to new understanding

By Professor George Siemens, UniSA Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning

Professor George SiemensHistorically, society has created institutions that mirror what is possible with information. The structure of scroll management and early librarianship at the Library of Alexandria, for example, was a by-product of increased exploration and growth of human knowledge. 

We build institutions to reflect what is possible with information, and universities have historically embodied this. Many of the most successful companies of the past 20 years similarly reflect the new opportunities with information. Universities today, however, are mismatched to what is possible with information, to how we interact with one another and engage in global conversations. 

Digital learning, then, is an opportunity for universities to explore how to remake themselves to better align with the modern information environment and with the modern technology landscape. When we, as an enterprise, begin exploring digital learning, we open new learning opportunities for students, we increase our relevance to the labour market, and we help to prepare both ourselves and our societies to transition to the reality of digital information. 

Universities must begin experimenting with new teaching and learning practices. Leaders need to start looking at what we are doing that we should stop doing. The legacy of how universities operate puts us at a disadvantage to innovation. In the USA, for example, a rapidly developing ecosystem of startups is placing pressure on universities to improve how they respond to emerging fields, such as data science and artificial intelligence, and how they serve the needs of lifelong learning, rather than only acquisition of a first degree. 

There is no clear path forward for universities, but we need to start exploring new approaches to how we account for learning outside of classrooms, how we personalise the experience of each student and how we support industry and society. The current model of classrooms and courses is the past, not the future. To understand what the future might look like, experimentation is required.