VC's Perspective: Universities must be part of the solution

Thursday 14 May 2020
Universities will survive the pandemic but the sector will ultimately be transformed. We have a real opportunity here to respond to transformation and disruption, says Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas.
Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas

Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas.

Last updated: Tuesday 5 April 2022

By Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas

At the start of 2020, the last thing I imagined was that within a couple of months I would be ‘going to work’ by sitting in my living room talking on Zoom!

This tells me you can plan all you like, but actually you must be nimble, engaged and optimistic enough to be able to adapt and respond quickly to changed circumstances beyond your control.

This year has exemplified that to the nth degree. This is out of our control—a pandemic sweeping the world.

Our task as Vice-Chancellors is to ensure that we’re able to thrive in this environment.

Universities have changed. They will survive—as they have through world wars and other pandemics—but the sector could be transformed as a result.

Our job as leaders is to face the future with optimism, hope and belief in the people who make up institutions, and to understand what we do and why we do it.

We have a real opportunity here to respond to transformation and disruption. I am a big believer in high-quality online education that is pedagogically different to face-to-face didactic delivery. This could involve discursive engagement, in student-centred learning environments, using technology so that teachers enable learning rather than deliver information.

If universities are not doing this already, this pandemic gives us an opportunity to capture and put to work what’s been in the research literature for decades.

Now is the time to shift our thinking about the ways students learn. Plenty of students love lectures but there are many other ways to learn. If students don’t want to or can’t come onto campus, they should be enabled to do that because we’ve constructed a learning environment that’s adapted to their needs, just in time and just for them.

Perhaps we need to think of ourselves as institutions that essentially ‘Spotify’ the learning experience. So much of our traditional education is like putting on an LP record: track one, gap, track two, gap, track three and so on. Get to the end and you have your degree.

New generations of learners want to co-construct their curriculum, engage in bite-sized pieces when they choose to. There are parameters—external accreditation, for example—but, by and large, the pressure coming from the next generation of students is that they want to be able to curate their own learning experience: mix and match, informal learning, practical hands-on experience, being able to work through other institutions.

This means a shift in the way in which we think about what it means to educate—to something that is fully student-centred, with us there to create, advise, provide feedback and engage. These are opportunities we should grab with both hands.

The pandemic offers New Zealand universities another opportunity. We have proved that we can punch above our weight and lead the world. But if we think ‘how can we get back to where we were in 2019’, we’re missing the opportunity to think bigger about how we can help New Zealand.

We need to think how we can help regenerate, renew, re-energise and transform Aotearoa New Zealand into a new country. We can be part of the solution not part of the problem.

We can do this by living within our means, working with staff to get the best outcomes with what we have, thinking creatively about how we can thrive—without immediate extra support that, in my view at this particular time, is better placed going to other areas, such as the health sector.

How can we put our collective energy and smarts to work? Universities are filled with educated, smart people; the best of the best. That has to be harnessed for the good of New Zealand.

This is first and foremost a people crisis. We must acknowledge that. We won’t be able to serve New Zealand to our best capacity if we aren’t well and engaged and resilient in a time of change.

I can see four fundamental roles universities need to cherish. We are:

  • educating the next generation of leaders
  • solving the world’s wicked problems through research
  • enabling citizenry who can discern policy difference, who can fully participate in democracy and are educated enough to understand and create social capital
  • economic drivers—at both the local and national level in an export capacity.

We need to foster and cherish all these roles.

New Zealand has its own challenges. We are not as rich as Australia and the UK. There are other financial demands on budgets.

We must work hard within our constraints to preserve our crucial roles, do what we can with what we have, and be part of the solution for our country.

This article was originally published by Universities New Zealand.