Arial view of the Quadrangle with Sydney skyscrape in the background

Day 3: Times Higher Education Summit 2023

28 September 2023
Proudly hosted by the University of Sydney
The final day of the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit 2023, exploring the theme 'Collaborating for greatness in a multidisciplinary world'.

Leaders reflect on the role of universities in shaping public opinion

Group of panellists in discussion

From left to right: Myriam Sfeir, Yaser Naseri, Libby Hackett, Tony Chan, Arshad Ahmad, John Ross.

Moderated by John Ross, Asia-Pacific Editor, Times Higher Education, in discussion with:

  • Libby Hackett, CEO, James Martin Institute for Public Policy 
  • Professor Tony Chan, President, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
  • Myriam Sfeir, Director of the Arab Institute for Women Lebanese American University
  • Yaser Naseri, Ambassador, Refugee Council of Australia
  • Professor Arshad Ahmad, Vice-Chancellor, Lahore University of Management Sciences

Libby Hackett said universities play a key role in providing an evidence-based perspective, but she stressed there are differences between informing, influencing and shaping debate – with Australian universities most commonly acting as safe space for open dialogue. “Universities play this essential role… in strengthening the fabric of our democracy. And that means contributing to debate and dialogue,” she said.

Professor Arshad Ahmad said that while pushing boundaries remains a core part of higher education and research, in many places it must be done carefully. He said: “It can be very different, say sitting in a university in Canada, as opposed to a university In Pakistan, when, for example, a faculty member decides to perhaps push the boundaries through an activist agenda.”

In places like Iran, universities are strictly controlled by government, with dissenting students often gagged, jailed and even tortured, said Yaser Naseri, a former refugee and University of Sydney alumnus now at the Refugee Council of Australia. He believes universities should instead be “free” places – platforms for in-depth dialogue on a range of perspectives. He said: “Universities are like an advisory body to provide insight… to provide a platform for different parts of the argument.” 

For Myriam Sfeir, universities have some responsibility in influencing public opinion by enacting evidence-based social change. Renowned for being at the forefront of the “gender agenda” in Lebanon, Ms Sfeir, through the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University represents the “activist arm” of academia where the institute has successfully lobbied for extended parental leave in Lebanon. She said: “We've worked on issues related to countrywide parental leave and the importance of parental leave for work. These aspects are very important in terms of changing opinions simply because we're influencing the youth.”

Professor Tony Chan said he doesn’t believe universities should shape public opinion, but rather influence through their work. He said: “If you want to shape public opinion, public opinion will shape you. And once that starts to happen, you will go down a slippery slope, and I've seen that happen.”

Running a high-performing institution: the Australian perspective 

Group of panellists in discussion

From left to right: Professors Pascale Quester, Rebekah Brown, Mark Scott, Attila Brungs, Eric Knight. 

Moderated by Eric Knight, Executive Dean, Macquarie Business School, in discussion with:

  • Professor Mark Scott AO, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Sydney
  • Professor Rebekah Brown, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and Senior Vice-President, Monash University
  • Professor Attila Brungs, Vice-Chancellor, University of New South Wales
  • Professor Pascale Quester, President and Vice-Chancellor, Swinburne University of Technology

For universities to thrive, they must enhance the experiences of their students and community, according to Professor Mark Scott, who emphasised that the increased cost of degrees and living risked turning university attendance into a "transactional experience."

"I think there's a real challenge for Australian universities to be able to demonstrate the remarkable transformational value of the experience of domestic students. We are really focused on the student experience – they deserve that. It is a vital part of our license to operate."

Equally important, he said, is enhancing the experience of staff and recruiting leaders committed to collaboration: "How do you create an environment where creative, highly intelligent, and passionate people can do their best work?"

Professor Brungs reflected that Australian universities exist for the public good, but that expectations around how this role is demonstrated had changed. He said this is particularly so with regards to universities becoming places of lifelong learning that support the education of the entire workforce: "[universities] are one of the few institutions left that can take a really long-term perspective." 

According to Professor Quester, Australian universities carry less "social status" compared with their overseas counterparts, which means that their value is almost exclusively quantified in economic terms. She said that Australia's transition from a mining economy to a knowledge economy depends on higher education: "We will not be an active participant in the knowledge economy without a strong education system."

Professor Brown cautioned that while Australian universities perform remarkably well, collaborate, and together share in world-class infrastructure, not enough research is carried out as a proportion of GDP: "We have to be entrepreneurial. There isn't as much net investment in research nationally as a proportion of our GDP compared to some of our peers."

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