Charles Dicken’s novel Hard Times - in these Times was published more than 150 years ago highlighting the social and economic pressures of the time brought about by a cocktail of rampant materialism and dire industry practices. If democracy was assumed to correct this imbalance then recent examples of Corbyn, Hansen, BRexit and potentially Trump, remind us that new social and economic forms are emerging world-wide with little concern for the traditional communities they seek to disrupt and leave without supports. Universities are not immune to the contagion of merciless democratic judgements (by discerning students who vote with their feet) and they will need to demonstrate relevance in new and different ways if they are to figure as key elements in the solutions; and their critical and defining role, that of promoting and fostering learning, must be re-invented for a new generation. But what does an engaged university do? It must sort out the money issues and secure income which protects the key academic missions and portfolios. It must devise an attractive and relevant curriculum and learning environment and contribute to research. The university must help its community to define itself and be part of it as a key focus for engagement. The campus must be a good place to work for students and staff and the institution should be environmentally and ethically sensitive and responsible. Nationally and internationally the university must preserve its reputation so that good staff and students are recruited and retained. A university’s mission must play its part in improving the environment, local education and health and community outcomes. For this to happen learning must be credible; it must be really useful knowledge for those who are bent on acquiring it. In this context we must remember that millions of people across the globe have absolutely no access to university accredited learning and unless their poverty and geographical isolation is substantially relieved they will remain outside our western system of mass higher education. These are the ‘housekeeping’ issues and important though they are, there are issues of principle which need to be addressed at the same moment! It may be time for universities to take the side of and be in solidarity with collective identities and communities which are in struggle for a fairer society. Stability and social cohesion, let alone morality, prosperity and sense of the ‘fair go’ demands that this issue be addressed. If universities are to help shape the ‘new times’, we need to re-define and re-shape our communities. First, because community is problematic John Berger, the great art and social critic, said that we don’t just live our own lives but the longings of our century. This means we have a longing to belong; a longing for community; a desire to be a part of something greater than just ourselves and our own family, important though that might be. The communities left behind by de-industrialisation and those who have only known poverty and deprivation and war are seeking meaning in their past and a viable future. Productivity is not reducing scarcity and the knowledge explosion is not leading to greater democracy. The economic and military unification of the world has not brought peace but genocide Second, modern life is impermanent and unstable yet communities want to have a common identity and they seek shared experience. We live inter-dependent lives and have a shared fate in common. We need imaginative solutions to issues and problems facing us. We live in ‘new times’ and in a state of permanent transition and this forces us to look at the direction of change; where is it going? How will it get there? The rise of populism seems to point to the failure of globalisation and ‘neo-liberalism’ with its emphasis on the ‘small state’, the marketization of all goods and services and social life, the privatisation of all social wealth and communal resources. The status quo is not sustainable and people are becoming concerned about what binds a society and community together. The older ‘central’ politics is being rejected in favour of more radical proposals, from both right and left directions in Europe, in the USA and in Australia. They seem to offer attractively simple answers to the intractable problems of economic and cultural grievances and the bonds that held us together in the past seem to weaken as identity politics and nationalism gain ground. Universities cannot be neutral ground in these struggles. The remaking of economy and community is a task for us as we face a 21st Century Dickensian call for hard choices in new times. This paper explores whether or not universities can be marginal in this or whether they can generate new debate and momentum about their own relevance and role in engaging and helping transform the communities they serve and of which are an intrinsically significant part.

Published in: London International Conference on Education (LICE-2016)

  • Date of Conference: 14-17 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.2053/LICE.2016.0001
  • ISBN: 978-1-908320-76-6
  • Conference Location: Heathrow Windsor Marriott Hotel, UK