A profound change is taking place in our understanding of the mission of higher education. Increasingly, we have realised that academic freedom must be accompanied by the exercise of academic responsibility, in the sense of making a contribution to civil society. Actively responding to societal challenges is one way of doing so – as many universities have demonstrated in the case of COVID-19.
It is by now a commonplace remark that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, everywhere. We should all prepare for a ‘new normal’.
This is true, in particular, for residential universities, whose beautiful and comfortable campuses, in which they have invested so much care and money, were suddenly swept clean of students and professors in early 2020.
Since then, there has been a tsunami of changes: among them, an immediate pivot to online teaching and learning; rapid rethinking of pedagogy, assessment and curricula; emergency investment in digital infrastructure; re-evaluation of real estate; a blockage in the flow of international mobility; and behavioural changes among students and staff.
Underneath these surface phenomena, however, there is another and deeper change that has slowly been unfolding for some time – a shift in the tectonic plates of academia. A profound change is taking place in our understanding of the mission of higher education.
The changing mission of higher education is best understood at a conceptual level.
To explain what I mean, let me begin with our most fundamental tenet: the idea of academic freedom. There are many formulations, but essentially they all say that academic freedom is the right to create and disseminate knowledge on any topic we want, as we want, when we want, without external compulsion or constraint.
Such constraints, as there may be, are all situated within the academy, and exercised through the judgment of our peers; these include scholarly norms like originality, significance and rigour. It is external compulsion or constraint that we insist on being free from.
For academics of my generation (I’m 70), the emphasis on academic freedom created a space in which we could produce and disseminate knowledge without concerning ourselves very much with what happened to that knowledge.
In the knowledge economy, we operated very much on the supply side, secure in our conviction that an invisible hand would, in the fullness of time, deliver to society the benefits of knowledge, and thus satisfy demand. Excellence, we thought, would suffice.
Excellence is not sufficient
Increasingly, however, it became evident that, while this elegant argument might be true, it cannot be the whole truth, and, while excellence is necessary, it cannot be sufficient. The benefits of the invisible hand are slow in coming and unpredictable in nature.
While we may argue that, in the long term, it brings many unforeseen advantages, we must also admit that, in the short term, it fails to address many palpable needs. From the point of view of societal need, the invisible hand argument looks uncomfortably like an abdication of social and moral responsibility.
It should not have surprised us, then, that over the past few decades there has been an increasing impatience in civil society with the supply-side model of academia. There has been a shift in societal expectations of higher education, demanding more than just a supply of knowledge.
While no doubt delighted to hear that we have clever professors who write clever papers which are cited by other clever professors, society no longer considers that to be enough justification for our existence. No longer content to hear only about what we are good at, society wants to know in addition what we are good for.
Given the urgency and importance of many global challenges (and their local variations), it is a fair question to ask of academia whether and how we are responding to these challenges. In other words, more is expected of us on the demand side of the knowledge economy.
While very practised at responding to the ‘good at’ question, we are much less fluent in responding to the ‘good for’ question – in fact, it often still seems to catch us by surprise. There is something lacking in our conceptual framework, and in the absence of that something, we have difficulty in offering a concise, coherent and convincing response to the question about our role in society.
To look for what is lacking, here is a question. Academic freedom is clearly a supply-side concept. Is there a corresponding and equally fundamental concept on the demand side of knowledge production and dissemination which will augment our academic endeavour and allow us to respond adequately to the question of our role in society?
Yes, there is. It is the concept of academic responsibility.
No freedom can exist without responsibility, because freedom unrestrained by a self-imposed sense of responsibility becomes self-destructive. We saw this on 6 January 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, and history has shown us similar examples many times before. In principle and in practice, freedom without responsibility undermines its own foundations.
Why should we think that academic freedom is any different?
This is what the changing mission of higher education is about. It is an increasing realisation that, without relinquishing any of our cherished convictions regarding academic freedom, we should add to them in equal measure a sense of academic responsibility, and act accordingly.
Such a process of change has been unfolding for some time, manifesting itself in various ways and in different domains of discourse.
University Social Responsibility Network
Consider, for example, the work of the international University Social Responsibility Network (USRN).
Since 2015, this excellent organisation has been practising and preaching its belief that universities have a responsibility to work together to address the economic, social, cultural and environmental challenges in the world and to find solutions so as to make society more just, inclusive, peaceful and sustainable.
Their forthcoming summit, hosted as a virtual event by the University of Pretoria from 3-5 February 2021, will be considering priorities for the next decade, and inputs are welcome from any reader of this article (which also serves as a preview of my keynote address to be delivered at that event).
Nor is the USRN the only organisation working in the arena of academic responsibility. A broadly similar agenda is espoused, to mention only a few more examples, by the Civic University Network in the UK, the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy, and the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities.
These organisations operate in what might broadly be called engagement mode, reflecting a good idea with an unfortunate nomenclature, the so-called ‘third mission’ of universities.
But the idea of academic responsibility is also manifesting itself more broadly, as an integral part of the academic endeavour. A good example is the increasing insistence that universities should be able to demonstrate the societal impact of their research.
This was affirmed, for example, by the Global Research Council, in its 2019 Statement of Principles titled “Addressing Expectations of Societal and Economic Impact”. As will be familiar to academics in the UK, Australia, Hong Kong and some other jurisdictions, ‘research impact’ is not about citations or journal impact factors.
It is rather a particular version of the ‘good for’ question: Universities are asked to provide evidence of how their research has changed people’s lives for the better.
Moreover, this is not only about societal impact that came about by happenstance, through the workings of the invisible hand. It is also about research consciously responding to societal challenges.
More and more we hear of challenge-led research, as a counterpart of traditional curiosity-driven research. A frequent example is research conducted in response to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but the same impulse is evident in many countries at national level and in many cities at regional level.
Challenge-led research is, by definition and by intention, responsive to societal need, in a way that classic curiosity-driven research is not. It, therefore, operates within the context of academic responsibility, whereas curiosity-driven research operates in the context of academic freedom, the two modes of operation complementing each other.
At a conceptual level, responsiveness is not a synonym for responsibility, but at a practical level it serves as a more than satisfactory proxy. Responsiveness to the needs and demands of society is, therefore, both a moral imperative and a strategy with much to commend it, as I and others argue in a forthcoming book, The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa.
COVID-19 has shown the way
For a final example of the exercise of academic responsibility, I return to where I started: the COVID-19 pandemic. It is generally agreed that universities responded to the crisis very well, implementing almost overnight an online presentation of their teaching and learning portfolios.
But that is not all. Academics and universities also put their expertise to work to help understand, model, combat and ultimately prevent the spread of the virus. Hardly ever has the saying ‘from each according to their ability’ been more vividly demonstrated.
Universities with medical schools joined the urgent search for a vaccine, or contributed testing labs, or made available health sciences staff.
Other universities contributed epidemiological modelling, or statistical analyses, or data scientists. Engineering labs helped to produce urgently needed medical equipment.
Social scientists analysed the effect of the lockdown measures on local communities. Economists and philosophers considered the difficult moral issue of lockdown measures introduced to save lives but which also exacerbated poverty and inequality.
It is gratifying to think that all of this was done in the first instance from no other motive than a sense of responsibility.
If we have the will and the energy, our response to the COVID-19 pandemic could yet prove to be not only an example of academic responsibility, but an inflection point in the changing mission of higher education.
In the case of COVID-19, we rose to the occasion. But there are other pandemics: poverty, hunger, inequality, the climate emergency, dirty energy … Will we devote the same attention to these as we did to a virus? Without relinquishing our cherished idea of academic freedom, academic responsibility should compel us towards this end.