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A New Role for Universities

By Ruth Dunkin - posted Wednesday, 15 March 2000

Universities are no longer solely responsible for knowledge creation, knowledge storage and knowledge transmission. Access to information has been revolutionised by interactive communication and digital storage technologies.

Innovation & Teaching

When universities are called upon to identify the links between their research and teaching activities, they often suggest that knowledge transmission requires the involvement of those at the forefront of knowledge creation, whether or not these links are actually made in practice. This emphasises a linear model of knowledge creation and knowledge transmission, leading some now to suggest that research and teaching can be undertaken separately. However, just as knowledge creation is the result of a myriad of forces, prompted sometimes by the researchers’ agendas and sometimes by others with an interest, so too the learning process is dynamic and complex in which learners play a key role.

Economists are discovering that knowledge and learning are not equivalents and that learning, as opposed to knowledge, is more than a commodity. They are discovering, too, that effective learning is often interactive and engages learners in a discovery process of their own. Hence separation of research and teaching becomes problematic.


Innovation and learning

If students are seen to need to acquire skills and attitudes rather than mastery of particular areas of content, the very ‘task’ of knowledge transmission changes. This change is accelerated by the explosion of information and knowledge and the likelihood that these will continue to grow rapidly, especially in technological and scientific areas. Learners’ adaptive skills become important in the long-term rather than acquisition of specific content that might be superceded within five years. This, together with research about effective learning, are driving changes in the implicit role of institutions and people previously responsible for knowledge storage and transmission. The new paradigm demands that academics become facilitators of learning. The emphasis has moved from content to process.

Offsetting this trend toward more conceptual learning and attribute-based learning are the demands from employers for more job-ready graduates. These translate into a call for more specific content learning, along with interpersonal, teamworking and communication skills. The former demands are based on a view that economic productivity will be increased by a skilled workforce, with primarily near-term skills and knowledge. The first set of attributes is more likely to be required for the self-managing, innovating teams, the hall-mark of ‘high performance’ workplaces.

A changed mission

These changes in knowledge production and innovation processes give universities an opportunity to reconceive their role within the innovation process. Each will do this consistent with their distinct mission. The university can support both the identification of change and its take-up and do this in a way that recognises its part in broader systems.

These changes also offer universities the opportunity to change the way they relate their traditional activities, and the way they go about them. Universities often consider their education and training and research and development activities separately. While this implies a reality of separate processes, ‘clients’, decisionmaking influences and ‘production’ processes, it also represents the traditional linear model of knowledge creation and transmission, albeit with claimed linkages between the two.

But knowledge dissemination is not just about teaching students about accumulated knowledge; it can be about engaging them in the process; encouraging the release of ideas from within the confines of the university into the broader environment through commercialisation processes; and engaging in collaborative/action research with external partners who have prompted the development agenda in the first place.

The new model for a university sees the boundaries blurred between teaching, research and consultancy, and between academic and student, as well as roles between the university and external organisations. This process is beginning to redefine the role that universities see themselves playing within their societies.


Instead of being creators, custodians and disseminators of knowledge they become part of a network of players contributing to problems often identified by external organisations or communities. Those responses are patterned differently depending on the context. It may be that the university’s contribution lies not just in the invention of the new idea or knowledge, but in working with the people of an organisation to implement and accept that new idea. It may not be the academic who contributes but the student, either in the form of a work-based research project or as an application of acquired theory in the field. While individual students remain a major client group of universities, they are not the only client type.

Universities can facilitate learning and hence change by working with enterprises or by working with individuals to establish enterprises. A significant proportion of students graduating from universities like RMIT begin their own enterprises. Our programs have, over recent years, acknowledged this by incorporating small business skills in programs such as fashion and art.

East Gippsland and RMIT: an example of community engagement

An example of how a university can undertake its activities in different ways to enhance innovation lies in RMIT’s recent initiatives in the East Gippsland region. In consultation between RMIT and the local community, RMIT asked what were the issues confronting the region and how best it might assist. The region was suffering from high unemployment and a decline in each of its ‘core’ industries. A report on degradation of the ecological systems had previously identified problems but there had been little follow-up. A further key concern was the lack of tertiary education in the region, causing young people to move to the cities.

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This is an edited extract of a paper submitted to the Australian Innovation Summit.

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About the Author

Prof Ruth Dunkin is Vice-Chancellor of RMIT.

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Australian Innovation Summit
Department of Industry and Science
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