A View from the Chair – Professor Jim Nyland

A View from the Chair – Professor Jim Nyland

Engagement through education: an opportunity in times of crisis

The third decade of the 21st century is proving to be a time of great challenge and change for universities. Our future seems set to be one of social crisis, which at the same time is an educational crisis. The broadening and deepening themes of university engagement from business and industry to community in response to these crises pose fundamental questions of what our universal higher learning system should and can be.

At the end of this year Engagement Australia will showcase the very best engagement activities undertaken by Australian universities when it hosts the Engagement Excellence Awards (previously Bhert Awards), so keep your eyes on your inbox for dates!  The 2020 Awards include 124 submissions from 35 universities, one of the largest competitive fields for the Awards since their inception in 1997.

This amazing response from across the sector I believe reflects what the great art critic John Berger called our longing for community.  It also highlights the need for us to come together this year to celebrate the amazing work being done by all our universities through reciprocal partnerships.

There has never been a more important time for Australian universities to become deeply engaged with their communities, and to align these transformational operations with their strategic priorities – from research and industry engagement to the health and well-being of the communities in which they serve.  Our universities must move beyond what Professor Sharon Bell has called their traditional role as ‘anchor’ institutions to that of ‘mooring’ individuals and communities.  If we are tasked never let a serious crisis go to waste then we surely have the opportunity now to re-think the purpose of public higher education in terms of its engagement with its communities and its increasingly important sense of place.

Given the tectonic shifts across the globe that are forcing us to re-think the purpose of public higher education, our ability to produce job-ready graduates for the future as a national priority must surely revolve around  ideas of creativity and the need to re-invent the notion of critical thinking for change.

The National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund Working Group set up by the Federal Education Minister has the potential to embrace these new challenges in a new era that seeks to build on the shoulders of those who have gone before by advancing a consciousness and deep practice of university engagement with industry and society more broadly.

The associated $900 million National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund is aimed at enhancing engagement between higher education and industry, with a strong focus on STEM industries. Whist the details of the Fund and its mechanics are yet to be determined, Engagement Australia welcomes the vote of confidence and recognition that this new Fund gives to the engagement activities of a university. And we look forward to actively ‘engaging’ with the Vice-Chancellor led working group chaired by University of Technology Sydney Vice Chancellor, Professor Attila Brungs.

A world-wide health pandemic has forced many to ask what is now ‘normal’? and what might higher learning be for in an uncertain and fast-changing and unstable future? Whatever pathway our emergent national priorities signal towards a new purpose for higher learning, the current crisis-driven opportunity must surely lie in a re-definition that enables individuals, businesses, industry and communities to benefit from research and learning opportunities where a sustainable and more just society can be envisaged.

Professor Jim Nyland
Chair Engagement Australia