Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela

Higher Education for Good: Teaching and Learning Futures presents us with a formidable effort about ways in which higher education institutions can be thought of as organisations that consider, promote, and produce the good. Although this might be seen as a simple declaration of intentions or even as a straightforward task, both the editors and the chapter contributors indicate that, without an individual and collective will, careful thought, strategic planning, key partnerships, and innovative initiatives, this task is difficult to pull off. But this book goes much further, offering new ways of thinking about universities, their missions, and values and how to put into practice concrete initiatives in specific contexts to deal with the challenges of the current world.

Nowadays, universities operate in very complex environments. Ecological and climate crises, the COVID-19 pandemic, wars and armed conflicts, financial crises affecting the poorest, refugee and migratory movements, extreme populist movements, growing inequities (especially between wealthy countries in the Global North and countries with fragile economies in the Global South), violence, racial and sexual discrimination, labour division, little care for Indigenous groups and their knowledges and practices, and a host of other problems make us think about the world as a very difficult place in which to live, especially for the most fragile and vulnerable. Amid these crises, challenges, and problems, the book contains an urgent call to think about the role of universities and how they can help in addressing these challenges in an active and committed way.

Unfortunately, all too often, universities are encased in their own problems and challenges so that producing the good becomes even more challenging. As noted by most chapter authors of this book, higher education systems and universities are trapped in a series of narratives and practices that are dominated by financial drivers, reputational aspiration, and performance indicators. Income and reputation have become desirable assets for which higher education institutions compete by changing their structures, missions, values, and practices. Productivity and measures of quality have become goals in themselves.

As a result, higher education is seen too often as a set of goods with economic and prestige value that are traded in the market. This vision of higher education has shaped every sphere of universities and their practices. At global and national levels, universities are seen as economic engines of progress able to produce effective workers for the labour market and consequently boosting the economy. Universities are also seen as producers of profitable knowledge and research that can be commercialised rather than as producers of knowledge for the public good.

At an institutional level, many of these commercial narratives and practices shape universities’ missions and values. This promotes a university that operates under competitiveness and business-like principles and a cognitive capitalism paradigm. In the classroom, these discourses are reflected in the ways in which teaching and learning processes are practised with an emphasis on grades, skills, and certifications.

Both academics and students have come to form a pedagogical relationship that is shaped by market principles. On the one hand, many academics experience precarity and insecurity in their jobs, increasing demands to perform, or are pushed to generate income and reputation through academic publications and research grants. On the other hand, students become consumers of credentials with an overvaluation of grades and skills for the labour market. On top of this, recently, the COVID-19 pandemic brought not only disastrous economic consequences for universities, academics, and students, but it also challenged the ways in which teaching and learning had taken place. The pandemic also made evident inequities within and across countries and regions and put technologies and online learning as top priorities.

Although universities have not produced these problems, challenges, and powerful narratives by themselves, they have become complicit and even have been reinforcing marketised practices and inequities and promoting values that clash with the principles of the common good. In this milieu, what do universities have to offer? How can universities contribute to the good despite these rather gloomy and dark times, narratives, and practices?

This is the great contribution of this edited book and its 27 chapters by authors from all around the world who have given much careful thought about what the “good” looks like. Drawing on critical reflections about the challenges and problems affecting the world and the role and responsibility that universities have in countering these problems, the authors offer creative insights about what some of them call tactics of resistance and collective and collaborative actions across different levels and dimensions. These include initiating policy changes, promoting certain types of teaching and learning practices and assessment, forging partnerships between universities and other kinds of organisations of society nationally and internationally, working with local communities to solve concrete problems, producing and using technologies that facilitate learning in creative ways, and so on.

What is seen clearly throughout the chapters is a need for a new set of values for universities across the world, hindered by discourses and practices focused on economic aspects, reputation, and indicators. The reader will see, for example, how the reflections, initiatives, and strategies proposed in the book advocate for social justice, inclusion of the different and the most vulnerable, plurality, generosity, care for others, reparation, democracy, concern for the environment and the climate crisis, hope, equity, creativity, critical thinking and reflection, engagement with communities, higher learning and open access, and reduction of poverty. The promotion of these values, as shown throughout the chapters, can be fulfilled through multiple ways and at different orders of scale — such as participatory approaches (including teachers, students, and communities) — by exercising critical pedagogies and pedagogies of care, promoting antiracist practices and decolonising teaching methods and the curriculum, acknowledging Indigenous lands, creating partnerships and working collaboratively with students, rural communities and/ or with other universities or organisations, through critical data literacy, and using new technologies to promote online and blended learning or even artificial intelligence. All these initiatives aim to overcome an overemphasis on metrics, assessment, control, and performance.

Another aspect that makes this book unique is that of creatively thinking about the university — beyond traditional academic practices. In many chapters, the reader will find rather unusual ways of writing in an academic book (for example, poetry, a tale, narrative, co-written pieces, science fiction, visual essays, and the description of a quilt weaving). These new forms of communicating ways in which universities may produce goods are not only creative, but bring fresh air to stimulate academia, teachers, students, and communities to think about what universities can do amid the several crises in which they are immersed.

As the editors of the book stated in the call for chapters, what authors bring in their chapters are glimmers of optimism and hope for the future. Many of these glimmers provided by the authors emerged because of the pandemic in combination with all the challenges and problems affecting universities. As such, these glimmers of hope may help to change not only universities but the world.

Arica, Chile, 11 August 2022

Powered by Epublius