University Presidents Discuss Changes and New Accountabilities

video The Future of the Universities

Universities of the future will vary in their focus: some will dedicate themselves more to teaching, others to research. Interdisciplinarity will become the teaching & research paradigm. Instructors will no longer be conveyors of knowledge, but rather tutors who guide students in learning. Information and communication technologies will be intensely used. There will be greater commitment to the numerous problems faced by society.

This prospective overview summarizes the debate The Future of Universities, held on April 24 as part of the “University” program of the Intercontinental Academia.

The expositors were John Heath, pro-vice-chancellor for estates and infrastructure at the University of Birmingham (UK); Naomar de Almeida Filho, president of Southern Bahia Federal University (UFSB); Luiz Bevilacqua, former president of ABC Federal University (UFABC); Klaus Capelle, president of UFABC; Carlos Vogt, president of the Virtual University of the State of São Paulo (UNIVESP); and Marco Antonio Zago, president of the University of São Paulo (USP).

The panelists of the event were Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), and Marcelo Knobel, from the Institute of Physics of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP). The event was moderated by journalist Sabine Righetti, specialized in science and technology policy and in science journalism.


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For John Heath, digital technologies, now available to a considerable segment of the world’s population, will increasingly impact the modes of learning, enabling a 24/7 approach to education and significantly affecting how research is carried out.

Debate "The Future of the Universities" - April 24, 2015Heath said Birmingham already offers online classes, whereby students in the United Kingdom, United States, Hong Kong and Canada can interact, an experience they deem “transformative.”

The internationalization of education, in his view, will not lead to some kind of educational colonialism. On the contrary, he believes that globalization will actually reinforce the importance of diversity and buoy up the culture of each place.

For Naomar de Almeida Filho, we should consider various possible futures for universities, because he does not believe there will be a single model. In his view, today’s political, economic and social milieu makes it necessary for us to elect knowledge as society’s central and main asset.

For him, contemporaneity implies certain epistemological keynotes, now that time is being cast forward into future. “One feels one is living in a ‘liquid time-space’ [referring to sociologist Zygmunt Baumann’s concept of “liquid life,” precarious and fraught with uncertainty], with enormous diversity, which also causes friction.”

That is why the thought of philosopher Edgar Morin is so relevant today. For Morin, “education is the ‘force of the future,’ because it is one of the most powerful tools for effecting change.”

Like the trivium and the quadrivium, the sets of disciplines that  defined education in the Middle Ages, Almeida Filho lists five characteristics he deems fundamental to contemporary education: communication (skill in using lingua francae); connectivity; proficiency in interpretation; teaching/learning; and listening.

He said it is essential that the university be decolonized and recreated as an effective vector capable of transforming its environs.

For him, inequality in Brazil is fueled by a perverted kind of education. “Given the regressive taxation of our tax system, the State is financed by those who enjoy the least benefits. Thus, the primary and secondary education of a privileged minority is subsidized, leading them to enter the best public [and free] institutions of higher education.”

As for the less privileged, “if they ever manage to overcome their difficulties and begin their higher education, they have to pay.” He acknowledges that there are several mechanisms to facilitate access to university of the poorest youth – e.g., PROUNI, FIES, quotas –, “but these do not change the structure of the system.”

Intercontinental Academia Highlights

Like Almeida Filho, Luiz Bevilacqua stressed the complexity of the transformations society is undergoing. He called our current period “a time of culture shock” and made an analogy with surfing: “A wave on the beach is, technically, a shock wave and one should not attempt to swim it; one must have an instrument (the surfboard) to ride it.”

For him, “the university, in its current model, is finished and is unlikely to flourish. And there is not much time left to make the appropriate decisions.”

Bevilacqua also does not believe in a single model, but rather in certain guiding principles of transformation: the university should be, above all, a place where learning prevails over teaching; where research advances knowledge instead of enlivening the résumé of the researchers (reversing the current model that emphasizes quantity over quality); and where interdisciplinarity is seen not as a cause, but as a result of the convergence of disciplines.

Klaus Capelle preferred to speak about the future from the perspective of the history of universities, listing the duties that were conferred upon them over time.

He recalled that the roots of the university lay in the academies of the philosophers of ancient Greece, and also in institutions controlled by the Church in the Middle Ages. These institutions were devoted exclusively to teaching. “The significant change took place a little over 200 years ago, when Alexander Von Humboldt, in Germany, proposed a model of autonomous university that incorporated research.”

Capelle identified the 1970s as the time then the maintenance of public universities became so taxing that their members began finding it difficult to “justify their existence to the public ‘merely’ with the benefits of teaching and research.” Thus, the tripod of university action – teaching, research and extension – was strengthened approximately 10 years ago.

“However, at present, society demands from the university not only dedication to teaching, research and extension, but also a series of other purposes, such as social inclusion, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, internationalization, distance education and sustainability.”

For Capelle, too much is demanded from the university and there is too little time to achieve all that is demanded. But he believes the university will maintain its resilience in the face of the new demands, thanks to technological development and to changes in how knowledge is organized.

In the future, he predicts some changes that were unanimous in the debate: the massive use of information and communication technologies; interdisciplinarity as a solid paradigm (“without eliminating disciplinarity”); and the specialization of institutions, because not every university can do everything.

Carlos Vogt said that society has gone from a classical culture of “formation” to one of “information” and constant “transformation.” “Although we may not yet be aware, the university is already living the future, the process of permanent transformation.” This process is based, he said, on the “surfboard” (mentioned earlier by Bevilacqua) of information and communication technologies.

He mentioned UNIVESP’s main characteristics as an example of the use of new technologies, allowing 3,500 incoming students every year to attend one of two engineering courses (production and computation) or one of four courses leading to high-school teaching degrees (mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology).

After two years, UNIVESP’s students receive a certificate of higher education. If they want an engineer’s degree, they must complete three more years; a teaching degree, two more years.

As an example of using technology to educate students, Vogt mentioned the dedicated television channel UNIVESP TV and the university’s YouTube channel, which has already had 30 million hits.

Following up on a comment by Capelle about the history of universities, Marco Antonio Zago said that universities were previously no more than a depository of knowledge, but the period between wars in the 20th  century saw the consolidation of the model proposed by Humbolt, incorporating teaching and research.

For Zago, the missions of the university defined by Spanish philosopher Ortega Y Gasset (1885-1955) and the German thinker Karl Jaspers (1983-1969) remain valid.

He quoted an observation by Ortega y Gasset in his 1929 essay “Misión de la Universidad” on the aims of this institution: “Transmission of culture, education for the liberal professions, scientific research and the development of new men of science.”

Intercontinental Academia Highlights

He also cited the words of Jaspers: “The university is a school – but of a very special sort. It is intended not merely as a place for instruction; rather, the student is to participate actively in research and from this experience he is to acquire the intellectual discipline and education that will remain with him throughout his life. Ideally, the student thinks independently, listens critically and is responsible to himself. He has the freedom to learn.”

Zago recalled the aims of the University of São Paulo, as stated in Decree No. 6283, of 1934, which established the new institution:

a)     To promote, through research, the progress of science; 

b)     To convey, through teaching, knowledge that enriches or develops the spirit or is useful to life; 

c)      To train specialists in all branches of culture, and technicians and professional personnel in all professions that require a scientific or artistic background; 

d)     To accomplish the social work of popularizing science, literature and the arts through synthetic courses, conferences, lectures, radio broadcasting, scientific films and the like. 

For him, these goals already contained the embryo of what the university is today, when a new one has been added: the relationship between the university and society.

In his view, this new mission includes formulating proposals to solve the great problems of society, strengthening the relationship with other institutions, and concern about several other issues, e.g., the environment, population growth and changes, food production and the portability of information services. [To demonstrate this, Zago used his cell phone to quote Ortega Y Gasset, Jaspers and the decree that created the University of São Paulo).

Zago believes one specific issue deserves an intense debate, namely, how to deal creatively with the conflict between academic quality and universal access to higher education.

The Debate

Helena Nader, one of the panelists, asked the expositors about the governance of Brazilian universities, which “is distinct from that exercised in every other country represented at the Intercontinental Academia.” She also said that the autonomy of Brazilian universities “is established on paper, but doesn’t exist in fact.”

Regarding the diversity of universities advocated by the expositors, Nader asked whether a university that does not conduct research should be called a university.

Another aspect she highlighted is how Brazilian universities will deal with globalization, “when many models arrive here from abroad and impose themselves, including through economic pressure.”

Intercontinental Academia HighlightsMarcelo Knobel, the other panelist, questioned the lecturers about the importance given to undergraduate education, which, in his view, "is undervalued vis-à-vis research.” Secondly, he wondered what recommendation they might have to the young researchers participating in the Intercontinental Academia.

Responding to the panelists, John Heath said that higher education in Europe is a free market, with variations: “In Switzerland, it is free of charge; in the UK, it is very expensive.”

As for undergraduate education, Heath chose to highlight what should be the instructors’ role: “They are no longer the owners of knowledge, as the monks were in the Middle Ages; the modern role of a university professor is not to be an authority, but rather a moderator or coach.”

With regard to management, Naomar de Almeida Filho said one of the dilemmas of the university is how to submit its governance to society’s scrutiny. He also stated that autonomy has been often used to maintain the status quo.

He believes that we can move forward on this, as exemplified by an UFSB proposal establishing two councils: a university council, concerned with academic matters; and a strategic-social council, with representatives from the surrounding society: social movements, indigenous communities, trade unions and other organized bodies of the population.

For Vogt, the challenge is to find the balance between generality and specialization. “This cannot be done through the dissection of fields, but rather by aggregating them.” For him, aggregation also involves the question of university governance, “because we have a framework that was compatible with the 1960s, but today we know that the departments have not kept up with the dynamics of groups and of academic life.”

He said that in the 1990s he tried to deal with this problem at UNICAMP, but the corporatist reaction did not allow the discussion to go forward.

This challenge is associated with another one, he warned: “We must avoid the unionization of knowledge.” Vogt said the rationale of trade unions is important, but it cannot override the rationale of knowledge.

On the other hand, he said that what makes universities permanent and longstanding is their conservatism, much like what happens with religious institutions: “We want change, but not to the point of a final vertigo.”

On the importance of undergraduate education, he said it is key, because “you cannot prepare good researchers without preparing good undergraduate students in every field.”

Capelle, answering the question about management, said that presidents of federal universities in Brazil are in a unique position: they are legitimized by their election, but are subject to internal and external constraints that prevent them from fully exercising the governance of the institution.

With regard to undergraduate education, he believes it is wrong to think of it in isolation. “The solution thought out at UFABC is to forgo the tripod of teaching, research and extension, and accept the entanglement of activities, with graduate students teaching extension courses or taking part in research, for example.”

Luiz Bevilacqua said the governance of Brazilian universities is still a cultural issue and each institution has a proposal to improve it.

With regard to undergraduate education, he said the problem is that Brazil has a culture of diplomas, not of competence. “The model of colleges and technological institutions is very important and does not stanch student creativity.”

He also reinforced the view of other expositors on the need for another model of student/teacher relationship, whereby learning occurs not because instructors teach students, but rather because they provide the means to learn: “You have to make students advance on their own.”

Zago answered two questions from the panelists. First, regarding the profile of universities, he said it is not true that all universities should do research: “There is not enough money or resources; and this need not be so.” He said research universities in the United States number no more than 100, several from the first and second echelons, but many of inferior quality.

With regard to the University of São Paulo, he said its gigantism prevents it from growing even more or from making individualized proposals to its students. As for undergraduate education, he said that it is very important, but has not been given its proper value at USP.

As a recommendation to the young researchers of the Intercontinental Academia and their task of producing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about time, Zago suggested they question why they should be doing this, and for whom they are doing it (without forsaking how their work ought to be carried out), so that every interested party can benefit from the teachings about time contained in the course.

Opening the debate to other participants, biologist Eduardo Almeida, one of the young researchers of the Intercontinental Academia, asked the expositors how young professors might make a difference in the university of the future.

Marcos Nogueira Martins, professor at the Institute of Physics, asked how one should elevate to higher scientific levels the students who arrive at university with meager scientific culture.

Caio Dantas, former dean of undergraduate courses at USP and currently a researcher at the IEA, asked Naomar de Almeida Filho how it might be possible to reshape the university in very conservative regions. To Carlos Vogt, he asked how it is possible to deal with the labor union aspect of academic institutions.

Luiz Bevilacqua said there is no problem in extending the length of stay at the university of students with scant scientific culture. He added, regarding the necessary changes, that universities must learn to dialogue with members of Congress, because the military dictatorship accustomed every official to address only the executive branch of government.

Answering Caio Dantas’ inquiry, Almeida Filho said that one of the agents of transformation are the public policies for social inclusion that give voice to the population, even if part of it has a conservative mindset: “The university cannot be remiss; it has a civilizing role to play.”

For him, given today’s massive relativism, some values have been lost and the bond between university and society is faltering. “For a university to isolate itself is gruesome. It should incorporate into the cultural milieu those who have been first, and most recently, included in the economy.”

He also commented on university autonomy: “You must think differently about it. The concept of university autonomy thrived in the late 18th century, after the French Revolution, and in the early 19th century, at a time when the university had lost its social accountability.”

As for the trade union activism of faculty and staff, he said that “the rupture of the dialogue between university and society opened spaces for union activism.”

Carlos Vogt added that trade unionism in universities is one of the key issues, “but it is not a matter of preventing unionization, but rather of strengthening the academic rationale, of having clear academic projects.”

Klaus Capelle closed the debate by answering two questions: regarding young instructors, he ascribes them a key role in universities that are in the process of consolidation; and regarding less prepared students, he emphasized that they don’t always lack talent and many go on to become success stories: “We must help those whom we want in the university.”