What even is a University anyway?

Photo credit: Allan Bovill

This post summarises Ellen MacRae and Tara Gold’s keynote talk: What even is a University anyway?, and includes a video of their presentation at McEwan Hall. Ellen was EUSA President 20/22, and Tara was EUSA Vice President Education 21/22. This post is part of the Hot Topic: Learning & Teaching Conference 2022.

In this keynote talk, Ellen and Tara sit comfortably on the McEwan Hall stage in two armchairs, inviting the audience into a conversation about how universities are, and should be, transforming for the 2020s; for Generation Z.

Using a lily-pad analogy, they begin the talk with a focus on a career trajectory for Generation Z, and what that might look like. They progress to big picture thinking, drawing attention to the importance of a number of areas prominent in the wider Higher Education zeitgeist: student-owned spaces; citizenship; interdisciplinary research; forum; catalyst; community; and collaborative learning.

Ellen and Tara then move on to talking about these areas through three different, yet overlapping, lenses:

  1.  Research: Ellen and Tara want to see the University engage ALL of its students in the research work that it is so proud of as an institution. They refer to work already on-going in this area, including Edinburgh Futures Institute, Edinburgh Earth Initiative, and TestEd.

2. Community and Space: This lens highlights how this University is starting to pay attention to alternative forms of education outside of a four-year degree, for example through the initiative, Students as Change Agents, and the Centre for Open Learning.

3. Society: The focus here is directed onto the University’s relationship with the city that we live within. They advocate that the University should act as a role model to set an example of how to enact good citizenship, for instance, the decolonising the curriculum work supported by UncoverED.

The talk moves to questioning how a University can enable these aspirations. Ellen and Tara argue it’s not just about money, but about:

…dialogue, and understanding learning as an active and collaborative process that is completely inherent and inseparable from the lives of the people doing it!

They point to assessment, experiential learning , co-creation and lifelong learning as key areas to invest in. However, most importantly, they state that these areas should have freedom to change in the next five years as the world changes.

To answer their initial question at the outset of their talk – What is a university even anyway? – Tara and Ellen argue not for a clear definition, but for a fluid one, that upholds the university as a space and place that will benefit from “constant reimagination”.

You can watch Ellen and Tara’s keynote talk below:

picture of editor/producerEllen MacRae

Ellen is a direct entry, 2020 BSc (Hons) Biomedical Sciences graduate and was Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s (EUSA) first two-term President. Starting her term in June 2020, she has worked alongside the University throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and has witnessed its impacts on the lives of our students, our staff and across the higher education sector. During this time, she has advocated for students at a University level, including Court and Executive, but also to Scottish and UK Government on matters surrounding student safety, student experience and the rising cost of living.

Ellen was a member of the Curriculum Transformation Board and Student Engagement Strategy Group. Ellen’s term as EUSA President ended 10th June 2022 and she intends to pursue a career within medical charities and academic research in the fields of public, genomic and reproductive health. If you would like to get in touch with the current EUSA President, Niamh Roberts, then please email: president@eusa.ed.ac.uk. Ellen welcomes any communications to her personal email: ellenkmacrae@gmail.com or through LinkedIn: EllenKSMacRae.

picture of editor/producerTara Gold

Tara was elected as Vice President Education of the Students’ Association in March 2021, completing her undergraduate MA degree in History the same year. As a student she was involved in various student-led organisations including People and Planet Edinburgh, the Student-Staff Solidarity Network, the Rattlecap online magazine, and the Hearty Squirrel Food Cooperative. Over the course of her year in office she has been involved in the University’s Curriculum Transformation Programme, including working to establish and currently acting as co-chair for the Student Engagement Strategy Group. She has also worked on the Implementation of the University’s Evolved model of Student Support, alongside supporting Student Representation structures across the University, and working to embed student involvement in decision making across educational and administrative spaces.

Tara’s term as VP Education ended on the 10th of June 2022, and she is excited to soon be returning to student life to complete a Masters at McGill University. If you would like to get in touch with the current EUSA VP Education, Sam Maccallum, then please email: VPEducation@eusa.ed.ac.uk. Tara welcomes any communications to her personal email: tarakogold2@gmail.com or through LinkedIn: tarakogold

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