Anchoring the future – the role of universities

Opinion: Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater discusses the benefits universities contribute to society.

Covid-19 has left our cultural and economic institutions reeling. From Air New Zealand and the entire tourism industry to many well-known stores and restaurants, the epidemic has left organisations shattered and futures at risk. And as a nation, we need to support the institutions that anchor our society socially, economically and culturally.

Universities are no different. We have lost significant revenue and continue to incur costs. To continue to contribute in a way that will add value to Aotearoa New Zealand, we will need to restore our finances in a sustainable way.

Recent public discussion about universities has centred around the cost of higher education, who should be paying for it and how much is it worth. However, this discussion often fails to clarify the very tangible measures that include: the return on investment in universities through enhanced graduate productivity; innovation they bring to industry; taxes graduates pay, often as high earners; research and knowledge transfer; educational exports; and direct spending by universities, their staff and students that goes into the local and national economy.

There are other measures; less quantifiable and more about the role of a modern university extending beyond being solely an institution of teaching and research.

Today's universities are large, locally, nationally and internationally connected institutions that bring to their cities significant social, cultural, economic and community benefits. They are anchor institutions; important, long-standing and enduring, like schools, hospitals, and sporting and cultural facilities.

Their benefits expand beyond their most obvious core role in education, well-being and health and culture. They are the glue that connects government, industry and society.  

Their benefits expand beyond their most obvious core role in education, well-being and health and culture. They are the glue that connects government, industry and society. Whether they function well or not is a key part of what makes a city or region a more or less enjoyable, prosperous and productive place to live.

Higher education delivered by the country's universities supports, enriches and enhances each of the measures that are the mark of a society that is a good place to live and work.

As anchor institutions across the globe, universities are also powerful and effective in bringing change to society and supporting important sustainability goals. They think internationally but are based in the local economy and have an overarching mission to support the welfare and prosperity of their communities. They develop local talent and attract international expertise – both critical for building an innovative, knowledge-based economy.

In short, through their mission and strategy, our universities contribute to the important "double bottom line", addressing economic and social transformation. But we can and should do this better.

In times of significant disruption, such as now with Covid-19, our instinct may be to cling to tradition while simultaneously pursuing the impulse to forge new paths. Our recent experiences of moving to online learning and working from home are evidence of our ability to transform.

However, we have also learned how important the campus-based experience is and confirmed what we already knew: there is not a lot of humanity in zeros and ones.

This period of discontinuous change is an opportunity to reflect deeply on our future and think carefully about shaping our higher education institutions around the communities we serve.

Of course, we must focus on our core business: research productivity, teaching, rankings, and balancing the budget, like any large institution.

However, we should not let this distract us from the bigger picture of what we can do for our local communities, and our role as social enterprises and anchor institutions.

It is well understood that universities, government and businesses need to work more closely together. Increasingly, this will mean a focus on our local city and our national government and a shift in the way universities interact with each.

Other countries are already doing this better than we are. There are strong examples of governments, universities and industry thinking strategically and working together to drive economic growth and the development of new industries in their cities and regions. Look at the big data, quantum computing, space, environmental protection collaborations in Australia and across Europe; each is the potential seed of a locally based world-leading industry.

Our universities are anchor universities but that does not mean they cannot or should not change. They need to be more active participants in the national conversations about the future of New Zealand post Covid-19. The epidemic has taught us all some harsh lessons. We need to learn from them if we are to find a sustainable future for our universities and the country, because the fate of both are inextricably linked.

Our national higher education debate needs to broaden to consider these issues of purpose and value. As a sector, are we ready for this conversation and to respond to where it may lead us? More importantly, are we ready to lead the conversation that our nation deserves and requires of us to ensure a sustainable future for the next generation of New Zealanders?

Professor Dawn Freshwater is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from the New Zealand Herald Covid 19 coronavirus: Dawn Freshwater - universities can anchor our future 20 May 2020.

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