Universities are not ivory towers. Here's the role they can play today

A student walks past Royce Hall on the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) campus in Los Angeles, California, U.S. November 15, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson - RC1C51CDA550

The University of California campus: Academia has a role to play in bringing societies together Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Alice Gast
President, Imperial College London
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Over the past several years, we have witnessed a growing decline in the trust people place in institutions and experts. Universities and scientists, among others, no longer command the respect they once did.

I am a strong advocate for international higher education and all the benefits universities bring to society. I am disheartened by the current world climate, where I feel that some view higher education as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. While we strive to be elite universities without being elitist, we fail to connect with many in society. The changes brought about by an increasingly global economy and rapid technological advances have diminished the prospects for some. For them, there is a growing sense of frustration and alienation.

The reasons for this alienation are being analysed and debated. In her Harvard Business Review essay, Joan C Williams writes of a culturally and economically left behind white working-class. A hard-working, hard-living, thrifty and disciplined generation is in decline, with many of them deeply resenting this change and the professionals, experts and institutions that they see as responsible for it. As Williams notes, jobs with “solid wages, great benefits, and a respected place in their communities” are both strongly desired and ever more difficult to find.

Have you read?

JD Vance shows how one segment of this group, working-class rural Appalachian families, face economic and cultural insecurity in his moving memoir Hillbilly Elegy. As well-paid jobs for those without degrees become scarce, the chance to progress and study at great universities, as Vance did, can feel impossibly distant. Those who make it to American universities, Williams says, can face "open insults to students of working-class origin". Hard work no longer seems to pay, while well-educated elites thrive.

What role can universities play in this changing world? How can we help people like this find hope, confidence, opportunity and respect?

I think part of the answer is to develop new ways of collaborating and engaging with the residents of these communities. We need to create opportunities for those who are part of our universities to work personally and directly with community residents, to share knowledge, to listen to their creative ideas and to work together on projects that have practical applications within the community.

Universities understand the importance and power of collaboration. We practice it daily with academics at other universities and with our partners in government and the business community. We need to broaden our collaborative networks to more actively include those who doubt us the most, but know us the least.


Imperial’s newest campus is in London’s White City. The neighbourhood is urban, multicultural and poor. A quarter of adults have little education. Its residents live, on average, a decade less than those in the more affluent parts of London. Many don’t see themselves sitting in in our lecture halls or working in our laboratories. We are a world-leading university, but apparently we have nothing to offer them.

Our staff and students now spend a lot of time listening to our neighbours to better understand their needs, and work with them to address those needs. This has already produced some exciting results.

Ramona Williams is a local mother who was born with significant visual impairment. She asked whether Imperial could design a pushchair for people with sight loss using sensors and navigation technology. It is impossible for her to use a cane and push a chair at the same time. In response, a group of second year Bioengineering students and their supervisor, Dr Ian Radcliffe, are now designing a pushchair that takes on Ramona’s ideas and meets her needs.

Another neighbour, Tieyan Eweka, who lives on the White City Estate, has set up a west African pop-up food business. She is now an official Imperial supplier and has catered numerous college events, including our open day, when thousands of potential students and their families visited.

In addition to listening, we are investing in initiatives like the Invention Rooms. This new space in White City invites members of the local community to join Imperial’s academics, students, alumni and partners to test out creative ideas, build real prototypes and share in the joy and gratification of creation and discovery.

It offers a model for regaining trust with left behind communities. This means listening to our neighbours’ needs, tapping into their talents and opening our doors. We want to forge genuine partnerships with the people of White City.

Within the Invention Rooms, we have built a Reach Out Makerspace that provides local young people hands-on experience in designing and prototyping. The space includes cutting-edge equipment such as 3D printers, laser cutters and wood and metalworking machinery, with a range of programmes designed to help young people gain a sense of excitement about turning an idea into a tangible product.

I’m a big fan of the Ikea effect. When you build something, even a small bookcase made from particleboard, you feel a sense of attachment to it and value it, because you made it.

I hope that we will bring the Ikea effect to generations of young people who take ideas, learn how to develop them, make things and do things, and leave with a totally changed view of their own capabilities. We want them to gain confidence in themselves. We want them to have a vision for their future and a new outlook about what they can do.

One initiative, the Maker Challenge, brings local 14-18 year olds together with Imperial volunteers to learn to use a range of tools and techniques to help them make their own prototypes.

Their ideas are brilliant, ambitious and varied. One is to make hearing aids both more fashionable and wearable. Others include an automated card shuffler and dealer; a foldable skateboard; a light, wearable stab-proof vest; and trainers with inbuilt speakers that convert kinetic energy into stored energy.

Because these ideas are rooted in their own lives, they gain the sense that they have something to contribute to their community, and to others. They learn that they can be part of technological revolutions, not left behind by them. They feel empowered.

The decline of trust has widespread, negative effects across all aspects of society: political, economic and social. It is one of the most important issues we face today.

Universities have an important role to play in winning back the trust that has been lost. We can lead the way by listening to and working with our neighbours. We can help them regain – and strengthen – their self-confidence, dignity and hope.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum