The hybrid university

After a year of primarily online activities, we are slowly preparing for a new reality at the university. We will not go back to where we left off, but what will the new university be?

The front page of the EUA report Universities without walls.

This post is inspired by a tweet by Rikke Toft Nørgård and a presentation she held on the development of the post-pandemic hybrid university. In the presentation, she points to a recent EUA report envisioning how universities should develop towards 2030. The aim is that universities should be:

  • Open, Transformative and Transnational
  • Sustainable, Diverse and Engaged
  • Strong, Autonomous and Accountable

These are good points. The challenge is to figure out how to make it happen. That is why I think it is good that EUA is bold enough to suggest three quite concrete action points:

  • Reform academic careers
  • Promote interdisciplinarity
  • Strengthen civic engagement

When I say “concrete” here, we need to consider that EUA is an organization with 800+ universities as members, so it is still fairly high-level advice. In the following, I will reflect briefly on each of these.

Reform academic careers

This is a topic that I have been engaged in for quite some time. As a member of the Young Academy of Norway, I was involved in developing several reports on the need for heterogeneous career paths in academia. People are different; fields are different, universities are different. Therefore, we also need to allow for various types of career paths. It is also important to help people more easily move in and out of academia.

As a member of a working group on career assessment at Universities Norway, we have been developing what we call the Norwegian Career Assessment Matrix (NOR-CAM). This has been inspired by the Open Science Career Assessment Matrix (OS-CAM). Our Norwegian model goes beyond only considering Open Science (which I would have preferred to be Open Research, but that is another story). Rather, we propose that researcher assessment should be based on many variables. More on that soon, since the report will be out in not too long.

Promote interdisciplinarity

This is another topic I have been interested in myself for a long time. In fact, my post trying to define interdisciplinarity is (by far) my most read article on this blog. I am lucky enough to co-direct RITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time, and Motion. Even the name suggests that we take interdisciplinarity seriously. At RITMO, musicologists, psychologists and informatics researchers work together in various ways. Not all of the research is interdisciplinary, however. Some are multi-, cross-, and transdisciplinary. The main point is that we challenge traditional disciplinary boundaries.

A lot of people talk about the need for working interdisciplinary. However, those of us that try to do it face several issues. It is challenging from an individual perspective. People are still largely assessed disciplinary. That is why a reform of the way we perform research assessment is important, as mentioned above.

There are also numerous institutional challenges. Most universities are disciplinarily organized into faculties and departments. There are good reasons for doing this, and I am not suggesting that we should get rid of faculties and departments altogether. However, universities need to be much more flexible in allowing people to research and teach across department and faculty borders.

I have for some time been promoting the development of matrix universities, in which the organization is both horizontal and vertical. Some European universities (for example, Cambridge and Oxford) and many American universities are organized both vertically (faculties and departments) and horizontally (colleges and schools). This is a more complex organization, but it promotes more meeting points. The problem with a matrix organization is that it may feel too rigid. A better metaphor may be “web” universities. This would allow for more complex interconnections across (and beyond) the organization.

Strengthen civic engagement

I find it particularly interesting that the EUA report so clearly focuses on creating universities “without walls”. For many of us that are on the inside of a university, we don’t really see these walls. After all, we have open doors in and out of the university. But it is important to acknowledge that there are walls that other people face.

Too many people think of universities as a castle. This one being Bodiam Castle, UK, built in 1385 (from Wikipedia).

Tearing down the walls may be difficult, however. After all, the good thing about walls is that they support the construction of the house and create a safe and sheltered space. But building a lot more doors in the house can be a good starting point.

To continue the analogy, I think that we should build universities with as many terrace glass walls as possible. That means that people can easily move in and out of the university. It also means that it is possible to look into the parts of the university that may be closed off. A move towards Open Research and Open Education is one approach to increasing the public visibility of what is going on inside universities. Citizen Science is another, in which researchers engage more actively with the general public.

Is it possible to think of a university as a glass house with easy access? (from Alleideen)

There have been many unfortunate consequences of the corona. Fortunately, some changes may also happen quicker because more people realize that things need to change as we move on.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.