Role and future of universities – notes from the reading group

Maggie read Artificial intelligence will transform universities. Here’s how – World Economic Forum
The article presents the idea that Universities have created a need to innovate and evolve to meet the changing needs caused by the upsurge in AI. Already, the marking of student papers is becoming a thing of the past as AI is able to assess and even ” flag up” issues with ethics.Students are less able to distinguish between teacher marking and that of a “bot”. Teaching is additionally being impacted as students are able to undertake statistics courses using AI, massively reducing learning (and human teacher) time, with apparently equal learning and application outcomes. The author argues that Universities will need to up their game regarding employability and indeed attractive employment (remuneration). The paper is an easy-to-read item and clearly outlines the range of benefits and subsequent issues in relation to AI. All pertinent.

Suzi read three short opinion pieces: What are universities for and how do they work? by Keith Devlin, Everything must be measured: how mimicking business taints universities by Jonathan Wolff, and Universities are broke. So let’s cut the pointless admin and get back to teaching by André Spicer.

Devlin focused largely on the role of research within maths departments. The most interesting part, for me, came at the end when he talked about universities as communities and learning occurring “primarily by way of interpersonal interaction in a community”. Even without thinking about research outputs, there is value then in having a rich and varied community with faculty who have deep love and enthusiasm for their subject.

Wolf provided a clear and compelling dissection of how current educational policy is creating adverse incentives to community-mindedness (both within and between universities). Something detrimental to the education sector, which is such a significant part of the UK economy.

Spicer provides an insight into how this feels as an academic. He talks about how “In the UK, two thirds of universities now have more administrators than they do faculty staff.” and describes academics are “drowning in shit” (pointless admin).

For me, Spicer’s solutions for what universities could do to change this weren’t so compelling. If I could change one thing I would look at how we cost (or fail to cost) academic staff time. Academics can feel that they are expected to just do any amount of work they are given, or at least they often have no clear divide between work and not-work and have to constantly negotiate their time.

Amy didn’t read, but watched Why mayors should rule the world – Benjamin Barber – and would highly recommend it. Our modern democracy revolves around ancient institutions – we elect leaders most of us never meet and feel like we have very little input into the democratic process. This isn’t the case in cities – the leaders of cities, mayors, are seldom from anywhere other than the city they look after. They went to the local schools, they use the public transport and hospitals – they’ve watched their city grow. They have a vested interest in improving it. Positive changes towards existential issues such as climate change and terrorism are happening in cities (he gives an example of the LA port, which after an initiative to clear up, reduced the city’s overall emissions by 20%), and something can be learnt from the way that they operate. There are networks of mayors across the world, with a sense of competitiveness between them as to who can be the best city. Mayors from different cities meet up and share their practices, helping other cities implement changes using best practice, without the bureaucracy of central government slowing change down.

Suzanne watched  What are universities for? the RSA talk by Professor Stefan Collini and  Professor Paul O’Prey. The second half of the video was more focused on the way that higher tuition fees have changed the nature of the relationship between universities and students, but the introduction to the talk was much more on the topic we were discussing today. Stefan Collini began by saying that he believes universities are partially protected spaces which prioritise ‘deepening human understanding’, and that there are few if any other places where this happens. He compared them to other organisations which do research, such as R&D departments in industry, or teams working in politics, but said the difference was that universities were able to follow second order enquiries, and look at the boundaries of topics and knowledge, as they didn’t have a primary purpose of furthering one particular thing or ideal. So, although there are many benefits, such as increased GDP, from the kind of enquiry universities do (the ‘deepening of human understanding’ he started out with), that isn’t their aim or goal. He also went on to say that although we tend to see universities as primarily for the benefit of the individual students (furthering their careers, developing their own skills and knowledge) they should be seen as providing public good as well, for the reasons outlined above. In the group we discussed his basic premise, that universities are ‘protected spaces’, and decided that we aren’t sure that is really the case (especially with so much research being funded by grants from industry). However, it did lead to an interesting discussion about what we feel universities are actually for, if they aren’t what Collini outlined.

Suggested reading