Universities and the future of humanity

May 16, 2023
Classroom university

The University Accord has yet to address a future which recognises the huge health and environmental threats to society. It should provide a vision of the university as “A centre of learning to ensure the sustainability of the planet and the human race”.

The Universities Accord terms of reference indicated it was “to deliver a higher education system that meets the current and future needs of the nation, and targets to achieve this”. Yet the terms of reference and the following discussion paper made no mention of a University role in the leadership and management of the rapidly advancing threats to human civilisation.

Therefore my submission to the Australian Universities Accord recommends an essential refocussing of the universities, away from the present corporate model, to one concerned with addressing the present crises facing civilisation. The university should be “A centre of learning to ensure the sustainability of the planet and the human race”.

However in this key area for review, the future is mentioned only in item 7 of the terms of reference “securing the future of the Australian research pipeline, from basic and translational research to commercialisation. In doing so, the Accord will explore relevant initiatives and other opportunities and to further boost collaboration between universities and industry to drive greater commercial returns”.

Nevertheless one might have hoped that the discussion paper would have strayed from the terms of reference to address the greatest challenge of our time.

Health and Environmental Sustainability

Health and the environment are indivisible and we see this from mounting worldwide ill health conferred by climate change and ecological collapse.

We need to move the emphasis of teaching and research and the structure of the University towards environmental sustainability, to sustain our life support systems of stable climate and clean air, adequate and clean water, maintenance of biodiversity which provides ecological services and which are necessary for the purification of natural and man-created harms; most importantly ecological services which are the basis of food production.

The future will bring contracting budgets because of the rapidly increasing costs of reparation resulting from climate change. The health service is in crisis and training of more doctors and nurses is urgent.

Much should have been learned from the Covid pandemic in terms of prevention, treatment and the demands of a new disease. When Covid struck Western societies, we quickly realised that part of our inadequacy was that our health services had been deteriorating for at least 2 decades. They had not been prioritised in the growth economy of the richest countries and subsequently we have failed to recognise the need for post-Covid “new normal”.

In terms of climate change, environmental degradation and the many related threats, the health aspects are not yet included in most medical courses. They have to be.

In addition, an introductory course on climate change and environmental degradation should be part of every course in the University.

The new formula for dealing with health issues has to be across the silos of science, medical science, prevention and treatment, social science and services, population studies, aged and disability care, psychology, geographical distribution of services, all taken into account in medical and nursing education.

Due to climate change and to the social disintegration of society current services are being overwhelmed by a considerable increase in “trauma” medicine, not physical trauma but mental trauma such as childhood depression due to rapid changes in society and particularly to breakdown in positive social interaction, adult depression and anxiety due to loneliness. In addition, our consumer society is causing a range of infections due to incursion into native habitat leading to epidemics and pandemics. Industry has produced PFAS and other toxics and plastic particles now ubiquitous in the human body. All are more than likely to produce a range of new diseases.

Teaching must change and a large increase in health workers is required to at least provide basic care and address the many new medical challenges.

This need is so urgent that the medical course could be reduced to 4 years and the number of entrants increased. It can be accomplished by pruning some parts of the course without diminishing professional outcomes. It can be facilitated by changing the current three terms in each year to three expanded terms with 6 weeks holiday per year. Living expenses will need to be provided as well as reduced or no fees for students from regional, rural and remote areas. Living costs are required because many students have to earn in the current long breaks. Strong preference must be given to entrants from these areas and to Indigenous people in the expectation that general practice will be enhanced in these regions.

These regions are essential to sustainability in Australia with land, water and environmental management and the resilience to survive the increasing extremes of climate change.

Now and in the future universities need structures to act within such short time frames instead of current glacial efforts.

No doubt there will be bleating that national costs will increase but these costs will not be comparable to allowing the health services to continue deteriorating in face of the increasing workloads.

The same principles of recruitment must be applied for entrants to agricultural and ecological sciences. As with medicine many silos will be brought into concert for this mission. These are agricultural sciences, biodiversity and ecology that sustain it, including water science, planning, transport, energy and most importantly economics for the development of no growth economies to ensure sustainability through resilience in rural communities.

Why is the new vision required for our Universities?

A salient change to affect progress is a move away from the increasing influence of corporatism which has led to a growth economy providing prosperity partly by consumption of natural resources.

A consideration of these is fundamental in moving the university to address current threats for much endeavour is now devoted to ‘progress and prosperity’.

In 1997, Bill Readings of Harvard identified growing corporatism as an increasing problem in his book The University in Ruins. He said that Universities were increasingly turning into transnational corporations, and the idea of culture was being replaced by the discourse of “excellence”. As indicated in the Accord terms of reference section 7, the University of Excellence is a corporation driven by market forces, and as such, is more interested in profit margins than in thought. We must look to establishing a Real University.

For students, the joy of collegiate interaction has long gone and the university experience is seen solely as a means to an end – a job. Academic staff have little confidence in management and deplore the downgrading of teaching and the instability of most positions. All can see that climate and environmental goals will not be met and the wealthiest countries including Australia are failing their commitments. Western society needs too many earths to live on.

It is vital that universities be rescued from corporatism and given the vision of the university as “A centre of learning to ensure the sustainability of the planet and the human race”.

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