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After coronavirus, universities must collaborate with communities to support social transition

COVID-19 comes with a set of pressing social challenges. These include environmental catastrophes such as the Australian droughts and bushfires, and the impending crisis of global warming. Social and health issues—include debilitating poverty, racial and income inequality, and chronic diseases—also loom large.

In this turbulent environment, universities have an important role to play as anchor institutions that support communities in transition. Rather than undertaking knowledge work on behalf of society, they must do so in collaboration with society. This means building relationships with business, industry, government and not-for-profit organizations, to name but a few.

Recent decisions by the federal government to change the JobKeeper legislation three times, in a way that makes university staff ineligible, has left many in the sector feeling undervalued. Criticisms of universities stem from both sides of politics. For many people, universities remain institutions embodying past imperial practices. The rise of the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa and the United Kingdom, and the growing movement in Australia to decolonise the curriculum, demonstrates black and First Nations' students' frustration at an institution they still see as predominantly elitist and white.

On the other side of the political spectrum, universities are seen as aloof and disconnected from the real-world concerns of businesses and ordinary people. In 2017, then Vice-Chancellor of The University of Melbourne, Professor Glyn Davis, warned of a "rising tide of hostility" towards universities. And the former president of the University of Pennsylvania argued that to ensure ongoing relevance, universities must engage with the real world, and move "out of the ivory tower and into the streets". Universities have fared reasonably well compared to declining levels of trust in other institutions. But it's fair to say universities are built on an expert model that prizes academic knowledge and often de-legitimizes other forms of knowledge and learning.

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