The idea of a university, 'a university for the future', is worth contemplating now, more than ever, writes UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd.

While information is everywhere – knowledge is not. The university for the future must advance new knowledge through research aligned to use and transfer that knowledge, not only through its students but to wider society through partnership by informing policy and public discourse and through leading by example.

In Ireland, in 1854, University College Dublin was founded by John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic Cardinal but also a philosopher and educationalist.

He wrote a book: The idea of a university.

The philosophy of that book has shaped most, if not all, of the modern universities we know today.

In it, Newman argued that the role of a university was to educate the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out for – and to grasp – the truth.

It’s a simple premise, but it was controversial in its day.

Fast forward 150 or so years and we are all working very hard to teach our students how to think, to reason, to seek out truth through their education – to overcome ignorance, and to excel.

The idea of a university, a university for the future is, I believe, worth contemplating – now, more than ever. Right now, while information is everywhere – knowledge is not.

A university for the future must advance new knowledge through research, ideally research aligned to use, and to transfer that knowledge not only through the education of our students, but to wider society through partnership, through informing policy, through public discourse and leading by example.

We must move towards the provision of tailored education on demand which is decoupled from the confines of strict disciplinary shackles.

We must move towards an education where the assumed truths of information are constantly challenged, such as the assumed truth that a standardised Year 12 examination is in some way a predictor of future academic potential or achievement.

We must adopt new ways to admit and to assess in our university of the future.

We must move towards the university of the future being a forge where new knowledge is created from many inputs and in partnership with others beyond the institution.

The idea that ours is the only input of value is simply archaic arrogance.

Above all else, we must move towards demonstrable relevance and the provision of value to wider society.

These days, in higher education in modern Australia, vocational education gets a bad rap. It’s looked down on and positioned as somehow ‘lesser’. I think that’s very short-sighted.

There’s a blacksmith’s forge in the centre of Stanford University. The engineering department there was built around it on a framework of explicit vocational educational.

Back in 1891, Leland Stanford wanted his students to have a practical education. With utility and relevance and excellence and access in equal measure. 

A university for the future could do worse than to aspire to revisiting those goals: equity of access for the realisation of potential; excellence in all facets of operation; and relevance in all facets of operation.

No need to be elite. No need to be exclusive. Just be principled and adhere to excellence. Call a spade a spade and show the relevance of what we do in all cases.

Some of our educational content is intended to teach us how to think, others are intended as the application of that learned thought process.

The university of the future should scaffold education to add value beyond the discipline or subject area.

The university of the future should be conducting world class research. Putting public money into research is an investment. The value of an investment may go down as well as up – this is well understood in every other economic circle, so why should investment in university research be any different?

The university of the future should be both responsible and responsive. It helps shape a tolerant, multicultural society. It shines light onto the darkness of ignorance. It doesn’t hide behind an intellectual shield, rather it uses fact and truth and reason and evidence to educate. Most importantly, the university of the future has no ivory towers. It, its content and its utility are truly accessible. Not just locally, but nationally and globally.

To all. And for all. It exists as a ‘for benefit’ organisation.

So, must we wait for some future policy change or funding crisis or public opinion sea change before we set out to create this entity? No. The foundations for this future are in all of our institutions already.

The leaders of Australia’s universities – including me – are responsible for realising the full potential of those institutions, not in the future, but now – and for building the university for the future, today.