Insights: Why academia must raise the bar in society
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Insights: Why academia must raise the bar in society

Insights: Why academia must raise the bar in society

Research-based innovation will be needed for the new era in order to address the economic, social and environmental issues facing society


Universities and the communities they exist in need one another to survive and thrive in the pandemic-wreaked environment. Universities should be concerned about creating better-educated professionals who can do good in the society they serve. Society, in turn, will send its youth to academic institutions for their learning and sustainable livelihood.

Unlike in the developed economies, we don’t see much knowledge co-creation between universities and society in the GCC but there are a lot of interactions including internships in local businesses, guest faculty from the local industry, and of course, some industry funding for research. African and South American experiments show that knowledge co-creation can be a great way to solve the problems of society and reduce the impact of the environment on people.

In times of crisis, relying on solid relationships makes a difference. During the first wave of the pandemic, both academia and society felt the brunt of it. Survival is always a group effort but in most parts of GCC, the academic institutions could have done more to support the local communities.

As an example, the local university in Havelock, Canada, and the community worked together to either halt or significantly alter the proposal for a huge potash mine, which would disrupt the local livelihoods. The academia facilitated the local community to visualise their long-term sustainable development goals and persuaded the federal and local governments to change their attitude towards the approval process in sync with the community vision.

It takes time to recover from any calamity, be it floods, pandemics or earthquakes. Even though a university is almost self-sufficient, a lot of its staff, students and support systems come from the local community. How academia builds on shared lives and communities holds the key to social harmony. Many students lost the opportunity to work in person during the pandemic and the universities worked hard to find alternate arrangements.

One medical college provided all the support to its students volunteering in the local clinics during the pandemic by mobilising donations, safety equipment, and sample collection and testing. The academia should bring such leadership and service capabilities to the forefront of communities in addition to its scholastic work. It is also about building long-lasting relationships with the community, staff, students, government and local authorities, and sponsors in times of need.

Post-Covid recovery will be focused largely on economic issues. Unprecedented unemployment rates and a never-before poverty situation demand that universities use their knowledge capital to upskill and reskill for livelihood. Identify those business sectors that are most affected in the local communities and provide assistance in the form of social media marketing, lead generation, operations research and so on for the small and medium enterprises, in return for jobs to the members of the community.

Look beyond the traditional school-college route for those who lost jobs and those who can’t afford college. Tech can make a difference today with free training, and even a higher college degree. Local industry bodies, establishments, community colleges and others should be able to drive the reskilling and upskilling needs for potential employment of the local workforce. Rising above traditional degree selling, universities should be sensitive to the community’s needs and be flexible. After all, education for the sake of a degree is so outdated.

The academia must step outside its comfort zone of providing education and find creative solutions for the issues faced by the communities. People can easily be trained for the service industry like hotels, retail, food and delivery services, etc. Partnering with local establishments in co-creating knowledge will be fruitful for all stakeholders in generating employment and even new curriculum.

Research-based innovation will be needed for the new era in order to address the economic, social and environmental issues facing society, and an educational curriculum revamp will be needed for a better understanding of things that have never been experienced. Closer partnerships between knowledge institutions and society will require integrating real-life situations into course design. There should be no shame in copying and adapting best practices from elsewhere for transformational change.

It’s ironic that the keepers of knowledge need to be reminded that combining the efforts of the system and the community can only produce more value than what could be possible by the traditional way alone.

Dr Muneer is co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute and a stakeholder in the Silicon Valley-based deep-tech enterprise Rezonent Corp

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