Twelve Principles for Reinventing the 21 Century University

Universities are much in the news, but it is not good news. The rise in the  pandemic R number in the UK is having a profound impact on university students as they return in their thousands to campuses to find in many of them that they face total lockdown. So, no immersive quality campus experience for them, as the virus spreads amongst them.

We hear from university leaders about how they are creating more online teaching with mixtures of blended learning which they claim will offer a different but high-quality experience. But I do not hear how this will reflect on the learning outcomes for those exposed to this new regime nor of the job prospects in a post covid world?

Nor is there a clear message about the contribution universities can make to societal transformation, as I have argued in some earlier blogs. Especially in those which advocate their potentially significant  role in civic renewal.

A recent blog by Otto Scharmer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has seriously questioned their role in contributing to social progress. I agree, with him their role is very unclear. And this is clearly not on the policy radar for the Department for Education or Universities UK and more importantly it is not a priority for the university quality and standards regulator-the Office for Students.

The problem is lack of political will and a “knowing-doing” gap, which Otto calls “a disconnect between our collective consciousness and our collective action.” All of which leads to social breakdown, political unrest, and massive environmental destruction, including the extinction of our planetary biosphere.

He argues that as we move from one geological epoch-the Holocene to the Anthropocene it is time to reconceive the 21 Century University.

He explores these issues by mapping our current actions onto a set of Operating Systems(OS)-set out below.

In most of the sectors above he suggests we are stuck in OS levels 1, 2 and 3 and seem unable to progress beyond  to level 4.

“The main problems in our universities and schools today is the lack of vertical literacy. Vertical literacy is the capacity to lead transformative change, i.e., to shift the level of operating from 1.0 and 2.0 to 3.0 and 4.0 as needed by:

· seeing yourself — i.e. self-awareness — both individually and collectively
· accessing your curiosity, compassion, and courage
· deepening the space for listening and conversation
· reshaping the type of organizing from centralized to ecosystem
· cultivating governance mechanisms that operate from seeing the whole
· holding the space for profound transformation: letting go and letting come”

University Vice Chancellors and their deans largely operate at OS level 2(education). Whilst there are some exceptions(see my blogs on Arizona State University President Michael Crow), most exhibit epistemic myopia when it comes to building the capacity for vertical development towards level 4. “They think and operate in terms of horizontal development — for example, adding another skill here or another course there — not in terms of vertical development, which essentially deals with the evolution of consciousness. To use the analogy of the smartphone: they think in terms of adding another app, not in terms of upgrading the entire operating system.”

Plutarch argued two thousand years ago that “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”  But education keeps on filling and often drowning the recipients! As Richard Bawden and colleagues at Hawkesbury College in New South Wales  found there are innovative ways of learning that avoid the “knowing-doing gap

The key for them was to shift the place of learning  from campus to community. They knew that students learn better by doing.  So, they created action learning programmes in rural communities where the student becomes  the change agent, and the teacher is the coach, the helper who holds the space for the learner to facilitate their highest potential. Developing action learning at scale requires quite different learning infrastructures, including classrooms that are not primarily about content delivery but about reflection on action, which requires a different type of faculty that can hold the space for student-centred forms of learning.

“Learners and change makers must cultivate different ways of knowing. While action learning shifts the outer place of learning from the classroom to the real world, whole person learning shifts the inner place of learning from the head to the heart, and from the heart to the hand. Activating these different intelligences requires a deepening of the learning process by cultivating curiosity (open mind), compassion (open heart), and courage (open will).”

If we are to transform our universities to meet the 12 principles advocated by Otto,  then we need to co-create with students and communities a new and adaptive “Ecological University”. In my view this can only be achieved through a process of deliberative democracy involving students, academics, and the communities which the university serves (see my earlier thoughts on Civic Universities and Civic Agreements in Holland). And learners must become adaptive ecosystem leaders and as such become context and place based- change-makers.  They will need the competencies  to convene a diverse group of stakeholders and partners and then take them on a journey from a silo to a systems view, from” ego-system to eco-system” awareness. Creating the sustainable and ethical space for such a journey is at the heart of all major leadership challenges today. It is a capacity that is largely missing in organizations and insufficiently developed in our Universities.  Our Universities  could then offer real-world platforms and ecosystem partnerships in the cities and regions that they are embedded in and enhance that capacity by providing relevant out of classroom learning laboratories for student participation and learning by doing.

Published by Steve Martin

Steve is a passionate advocate for learning for sustainability and has spent nearly 40 years facilitating and supporting organisations and governments in ways they can contribute towards a more sustainable future. Over the past 15 years he has been a sustainability change consultant for some of the largest FTSE100 companies and Government Agencies such as the Environment Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. He was formerly Director of Learning at Forum for the Future and has served as a trustee for WWF(UK). He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Worcester and President of the sustainability charity Change Agents UK. He is currently a member of the Access Forum for the Peak District National Park and is supporting the local district council on its Climate emergency programme.

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