Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

What is the role of a modern university?

Gone are the days when universities are viewed as Ivory Towers, with distinguished Professors huddled around the fireplace or wearing their academic regalia while teaching. The role of universities in New Zealand and worldwide has undergone a perception and organizational change. But what is the role of the modern university, particularly in regards to science?

 Morrissey Manor (University of Notre Dame) lobby.

Morrissey Manor (University of Notre Dame) lobby.

I would argue that the modern university is multifaceted. For scholars it provides a forum for research, for governments it provides a source of knowledge generation, and for students it provides the skills and knowledge needed for a future career. These are the ideals of what a university should provide, but each role also possesses its own challenges.

The unavoidable consequence of research is that it requires funding. New Zealand is fortunate as the current budget demonstrates a prioritization of science researching, having allocated $56.8 million more for contestable science funding and an additional $67.9 million for tertiary science education. However, many universities still look to other sources of funding, including that from industry. Industry funding provides the opportunity for collaboration and to directly address current issues and challenges. However, there is a perception, and indeed a fear, that industry money may contaminate the objective, unbiased ideals of a researcher. This means that academics must juggle their drive for research with the potential for industries to manipulate research questions or communication of the research to the public.

From a teaching standpoint, the ultimate goal of an educator is to give students the skills of independent thought and critical analysis, thus providing them with the tools to face some of the world’s greatest challenges (think climate change, water security, and demographic and societal changes). There appears to be a mismatch however in how educators view their role within a university and how students view that same role. The idea of a university being a “training ground” for specific vocations is epitomized by the common question of “what are you going to do with that degree?” or “is this going to be in the test?”.  Rather than independent thought and initiative, many (but not all) students value route learning and passive lectures. Perhaps one of the great challenges facing universities is how to balance the growing number of students entering tertiary education with providing the skills that a student needs to face the reality of a ‘multi-job life’ in a dynamic, fast-moving, and globalized workplace.

In my view, universities need to provide close staff/student interaction with an emphasis on guiding thought and enquiry not spoon-feeding. They need to offer multi-disciplinary education and collaboration. They need to prepare potential scientists better for the reality of communicating their research with industry, lay-people and academics. Finally, they not only need to teach what to learn but how to learn in order to address real-world issues.