Does engagement still matter anymore to universities?
For some time now Australian and global universities have responded to changes in policy, funding, demographics, technology and context by periodically re-examining their mission. Each cycle of new leadership rightly begins with a review of strategic purpose. Such reviews often combine a reconnection with legacy and history, a response to competitive context, and an embrace of developments in technology. They are often coloured by the preferences in leadership style, and pre-dispositions, of newly assembled leadership teams.
We have seen many, and great examples of this, none more so in my experience than the excellent Creating a Future for All strategy that VC Carolyn Evans launched so effectively at Griffith in late 2019. It is distinctively Griffith, draws from its roots of inter-disciplinarity and a social justice mission, and sets that university apart, in a landscape where strategies can all seem so alike.
Of course, the world was a different place then. Or was it? Many would argue that the COVID 19 pandemic, and our global lockdowns, have created a need for innovation, acceleration of digital pedagogy, review of academic structures and back office functions, and a search for new income streams, including the rush to a world of micro-credentials, all of which we were embarked upon anyway. The deadline just got pulled forward. Rapidly.
What the Griffith, and some other strategies, have at their heart is the concept of an engaged or civic university. This has been our focus in recent times in Engagement Australia. As universities re-establish themselves post-COVID, strategies will inevitably evolve, in their dependence on international students for sure. But the selectivity and funding of research, the design and packaging of learning, the nature, location and extent of physical campuses, and the processes and technology that support academic enterprise in its new size and shape, may all need to change.
But what of our concept of engagement in a post-COVID Australian university world? Can we still afford it? Does it still matter? Will anyone be there and want to engage with us?