Openness: Key for universities in the 2020s

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European University Association President, Michael Murphy, argues that openness is key for the success of universities in the new decade

We enter the new decade in the midst of a crisis. As all major crises, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed both a threat and an opportunity. For universities, it demanded transformation from on-campus to online learning and research, disrupting overnight centuries of practice and tradition; equally, it presented the sector with an unparalleled opportunity to shine as problem solvers, reminding citizens of the crucial role that universities play in our modern “knowledge society”.

COVID:19 and university-based research

The mobilisation of university-based research to find vaccines, new virus testing methods and treatments have been remarkable. Epidemiological and sociological advice to governments has proved critical in developing strategies to reduce the contagion. Most notable has been the synergistic interplay between university researchers and private sector industry innovators at a global scale, translating scientific discovery into therapeutic medicines and vaccines with unprecedented speed.

This crisis will pass, and COVID-19 will join the long list of viruses with which we warily cohabit, yet its revelation or reminder of other more intractable challenges has been sobering. The transition to online learning laid bare the breadth and depth of persisting social inequality, disadvantaging many students with poor access to digital infrastructure, computers, or simply a quiet space at home. Suddenly, clean air and the sound of birdsong reminded us how much we have become accustomed to air and noise pollution. We have a new appreciation of the importance of our battle to ensure the sustainability of our environment, our species and our planet. Never have the UN Sustainable Development Goals been so firmly imprinted on our consciousness. Paradoxically, the pandemic has also brought us new optimism, new insights into new possibilities. It has illuminated our immense scientific capabilities and the fact that, with strong political will coupled with global collaboration, we can overcome the most daunting challenges. Universities are central to our capacity – in science, in educating the necessary skilled workforce and informed citizens, and have decades of experience in building partnerships around the globe.

Universities without walls: A vision for 2030

“Never waste a crisis” became a mantra during the financial crisis a decade ago, crises present opportunities for the most profound reflection and learning. Thus, the origin of “Universities without walls: A vision for 2030”, a guide to strengthening Europe’s higher education institutions derived from consultations over the past year with members of the 850-member strong European University Association, societal stakeholders and experts from across Europe. Strengthening with a purpose – to ensure that Europe’s universities play the part they must in supporting society to attain global sustainability goals.

Openness is the key theme: transparency in governance and leadership with external societal representation on governing boards; citizens enjoying input in prioritising the research agenda; wide access to learning for all who need and can benefit from higher education throughout life; flexibility in course offerings, in learning assessment and accumulation of learning; seamless mobility between academia and the world of work so that academics remain current in their instruction and can meet demands for ever-changing workforce skills; more mobility across borders and between institutions; openness in science whereby research outputs and data are accessible to all; exploiting digital technology to enable solidarity and collaborative learning, virtual classrooms and laboratories, institutions partnering openly across Europe and beyond; open engagement with civic, cultural and business partners to sustain regional and local economies and societies.

The strength of Europe rests on its diversity and universities, while evolving, will remain diverse in their missions, in their specialisations and in their contributions to sustaining our continent’s rich cultural heritage. Likewise, they will remain steadfast in their values of academic freedom, methodological rigour and evidence-based dialogue. They will remain places (virtual and physical) of challenge, reflection and inspiration for young students, lifelong learners, staff, visiting citizens and societal partners.

The “knowledge society”

In the “knowledge society”, Europe will only be as successful as its universities will be and their success requires a supportive milieu: enabling regulatory frameworks guaranteeing necessary autonomy coupled with appropriate accountability, adequate investment and strong leadership. The principles set out in the recent European Commission communications on the future of the European Research Area, the European Education Area and the updated Digital Education Action Plan are an excellent starting point. Actions needed may differ across Europe, but some priorities apply everywhere: the need for reform of academic careers, steadfast promotion of interdisciplinarity in research and learning and strengthening the civic role of universities as supporters of Europe’s open, pluralistic and democratic societies. Many universities are already advanced in implementation. But, by adopting “Universities without Walls” the national rectors’ conferences of 33 countries have taken a clear position that the university sector as a whole will play its part in ensuring a sustainable, successful and harmonious European society in the decade ahead. Its achievement will require collaboration among all societal actors; the universities are open.

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