As I write, Autumn is upon us again and at last we have a full return to campus for the coming academic year. When you read this, our first years will have joined us, swelling our community of students beyond 18,000 for the first time. It is a relief that students are back fully face to face so that they can experience that ‘whole of learning’ again.

That is not to say that we won’t face challenges and we must take the learnings of the last two and a half years and apply them. We are also aware of pandemic legacy issues and we have used an enhanced orientation process this year to welcome our new and returning students.

I am very cognisant also of the challenges facing students be it accommodation, commuting, illness and self-isolation – and the stresses of everyday life experienced across the campus community and beyond. A full range of support services are there to assist our students and staff and we are reviewing the support offer to ensure they meet the needs of our growing and diversifying campus community.

There will be many milestones during the year, particularly as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this institution that we love and cherish. We look to our heritage in order to carve a course for the future.

We are committed to get more activity into our City Campus this year and there are many developments in train as they relate to the campus – but the chief motivation and central to our planning is how we can cultivate and protect the environment around us as we shape for the next 50 years.

Radical and accelerated scientific and technological developments affect all professional fields and change occupational patterns. They influence society at large, shaping cultural traditions, behaviours and underlying values.

The last few years have crystallised the many urgent global challenges we face: climate change and planetary health; a war in Europe adding to the ongoing military conflicts worldwide and with the real threat of exploding into a global conflagration. As a result, we see increased mass migration while being exposed to the growing challenges associated with energy, food and water security, which have been badly impacted by disrupted supply chains.

Overproduction and -consumption in parts of the world, the plastic pollution of the oceans and a mounting global waste problem, which, when teamed with the extinction of many wildlife and plant species, clearly signal that we simply cannot be passive about our future – thinking five to 10 years ahead is too short-sighted.

It is not easy or comfortable to fully envisage the worst-case scenario future and feel like we are operating under a threat but as a university community and as society we have no choice. We need viable long-term plans and the ability to learn and pivot as we turning plans into concrete actions with impact.

It is imperative we reconsider the value base on which decisions and interventions are made, ensuring that plans are designed and actions taken to engender a thriveable world. A thriveable world means a world that enables the harmonious co-evolution of humankind and all life on earth. I believe there are three interlinked dimensions to the required shift in values, attitudes and behaviours to catalyse lasting change.

Fundamentally, a radical change in focus from an individualistic and human-centric paradigm towards an understanding of the interconnectedness and mutuality of human existence within complex eco-systems.

Secondly, while rational thought and evidence-based approaches are crucial in understanding the macro-, meso- and micro-aspects of our world and ourselves, they represent only one dimension of grasping reality. Our senses, our body and our intuition provide other, sadly increasingly underrated and underutilised ways of relating, comprehending and knowing.

Thirdly, instead of structures and approaches that cement the compartmentalisation and fragmentation of knowledge and domain expertise, the emphasis has to shift towards meta-cognition, systems thinking in aid of holistic and integrative approaches.

As university leaders, educators and researchers we have to ask ourselves, our partners, our students and communities what knowledge and skills, abilities and experiences are required now and in the longer term to drive sustainability and ensure that the next generations can thrive and prosper too.

What can we do to not only avoid the worst case scenario future, ‘build back better’ and create a resilient and more just world. Universities’ raison d’etre lies in proactive knowledge-making, in experimenting and modelling, inventing and innovating including the probing and propositioning of models of value and practice.

As such, academia needs to take risks and challenge the status quo by scrutinizing the paradigms on which our future is being anticipated including the dominant position of rational thought based on the Cartesian split between mind and body, uncritical support for technology and belief in the power of algorithms as well as established economic growth models.

At a time when we are confronted with the exponential increase in data, information and knowledge, we have to hone our ability to critically conceptualise and contextualise, analyse and evaluate to gain insights and understanding and arm ourselves against the proliferation of half-truths and fake news.

We need to be sharper in our awareness of planetary needs as well as the interdependencies that exist. Therefore, it remains crucial to promote the role of sensory and embodied experiences. A balancing of rational cognition, sense perception, experiential knowledge and intuition, paired with holistic and systemic approaches to societal challenges are key in order to develop viable foresight and conceive of alternative futures.

Universities have a responsibility to foster inquisitiveness, imagination and the capabilities for systems thinking and human-centred design as key ingredients for addressing wicked problems in sustainable ways.

To condition mindsets for self-determined learning, critical engagement and respectful collaboration, a spatial re-organisation of the university is required that opens up departmental/disciplinary, research and functional silos and creates spaces conducive for cross-disciplinary and cross-functional exchange and co-creation. The traditional learning environment: the seminar room, lecture theatre and laboratory space has to be reimagined.

We need flexible spaces equipped to accommodate a diversity of modes of engagement and practices: physical, augmented and virtual. The ‘living lab’ methodology is gaining traction as an effective set-up for participatory and cross-sectoral inquiry and co-creation by which solutions for complex challenges are devised, prototyped and tested in multi-faceted real-life environments.

It deeply resonates with the move towards mission-oriented research and education that foreground urgency, purpose and intent, and centre on authenticity and value, connecting the individual researcher/student with communal needs and perspectives, and the local and global dimensions in addressing complex societal issues.

In developing our teaching methods and designing the curriculum, we have to support a diversity of learner needs, foster resilience and promote intelligent risk taking. With a focus on concept, context and challenge-based learning, we need to be mindful of how those methods contribute to the enhancement of learners’ ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, to embrace complexity and adaptation. This requires a shift away from preferencing output, product and summative assessments.

Instead, we need to appreciate the value of process, formative assessment and learning from failure. Co-creation with our partners in industry, communities and government as well as with our students can open up new ways of facilitating learning and inquiry. Together we need to ensure that the education and research opportunities created contribute toward shaping a thriveable future.

A university should lead the way forward, enable change, shape the future, inspire and stimulate through the art of making of questions, the art of making solutions, the art of making networks.

We take this responsibility very seriously at UL. By putting sustainability at the core of our thinking, we can harness the strength of our institution, our staff, our students, our 118,000 graduates and our surrounding community to affect real change with real impact.

Together we can make this happen.

Together we can move forward towards a positive future for this university, for our communities and for this region.

Together we can make UL Ireland’s most sustainable university.

Together we can have that impact – because what happens if we don’t?

Read the full Autumn 2022 Edition of UL Links here.