Welcome to 2023 – A year of celebration and transformational change

Welcome to 2023 – A year of celebration and transformational change

2023 marks twenty years since the formation of Engagement Australia (EA).  Over the last two decades EA has successfully championed the unique role our universities have with society in addressing contemporary global challenges and trends through teaching, learning, research and partnerships. And I am delighted to inform you that we begin this year with our flagship Leadership Forum later this month (as part of the Universities Australia national conference) in partnership with another significant Group that also celebrates its 20th anniversary – the Innovative Research Universities (IRU), a group of public universities across Australia committed to inclusive education and innovative research that advances our communities.  Clearly, 2003 was a good year for establishing sustainable Australian higher education networks.

The theme for our joint leadership forum later this month is Civic universities: a new accord between universities and their communities.  By all accounts the Universities Accord could be the biggest transformation of our sector since the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s which reshaped the landscape of Australian Higher Education, introducing HECs (loans for students to pay for their studies), merging HE Institutions and creating many brand new universities, to name but a few of its reforms.   With a strong focus on access and equity, the new accord calls for universities to reinvent themselves to better meet Australia’s knowledge and skills needs; to boost enrolments for our First Nations people, people with disabilities and rural and regional students; it also calls for a review of the funding model (especially the jobs ready graduates program); a review of current workplace relations; and a third review of the connection between TAFE and Universities.

The value position which is emerging is transparent: we need universities which exist for a social and civic purpose, where learning can transform individual lives AND whole communities in a world that is increasingly uncertain and unstable.

Chris Brinks in his recent book The Soul of a University: why excellence is not enough poses the question “what is a university good for?” It is quite different from the question “what is a university good at?” While a university might be excellent at research, that differs from being good for communities, good for social solidarity, good for democracy and good for social justice and fairness.

In this context, there are two areas I would hope this conference can include in their deliberations… the first question being ‘Is our education system good enough to create universities that are agents of change for their future communities?’

Universities have played a crucial role to date in the economic and civic building and strengthening of our cities and regions.  They are foundational to local and regional economies; they can invest and directly support a zone of the economy focussed on productive enterprises and social capital.  How then can we build on this success by enhancing the role of universities as transformational agents of change for their communities?

Secondly, how can universities tackle the existential issues of our time through the curriculum?

It is clear that our Universities already contribute to the public good in a range of ways including the supply of “hundreds of thousands of graduates each year to the professions such as health and education. What is less clear is how well they tackle what Professor Verity Firth has called the ‘wicked issues’ such as climate change, world poverty and degradation, war, social dislocation on an unimaginable scale and environmental destruction, to name but a few. These are the existential issues which will make or break our way of life. Our handling of these things will determine the future of our planet and species.  Whilst we cannot and should not invite people to consider deep suffering and deprivation as a learning opportunity, these serious issues should be at the very heart of our learning and be the basis of a critical literacy relevant to all learners. These matters are surely relevant to the question of – what are universities good for?  And how can an engaged university accord reimagine the role of universities with the idea of civic and public purpose at its heart.  More participation and a negotiated curriculum with our students and stakeholders as partners and co-creators of knowledge and curricular that focus on the key issues of our time would provide us and them with better tools to fashion our future.

Undoubtedly, 2023 will be a year of celebration for EA and all its past and present members that have shaped its existence over the last twenty years,  However it must also be the year when we take this historic opportunity presented by the Accord to reshape our universities to become the envy of the world in terms of being transformational agents of change of, and with their communities.

Thank you

Professor Jim Nyland
Char, Engagement Australia