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Blog post Part of special issue: Uncharted terrain: Teaching and learning in higher education for times of uncertainty

Urgent matters of insight: Upholding gaps in higher education research, teaching and learning for super-complexity

Gabriella F. Buttarazzi, Senior Educational Developer at University of East London

To date, Covid-19 has not only highlighted the interconnectedness of societies and individuals, but also that educational endeavours privileging the cultivation of particular human qualities contribute in ways that professional and technical knowledge cannot.

Our world leaders have been adopting various strategies with seriousness based on professional counsel. Breaking news has reminded us what is at stake and just how vulnerable societies and individuals can be. Yet these leaders appear to be groping around in the dark in dealing with such global concerns. This unrest reveals that there is a greater need for research, teaching and learning that is explicitly built upon preparing our students to cope with the inevitable super-complexity and uncertainty of modern times.

‘There is a greater need for research, teaching and learning that is explicitly built upon preparing our students to cope with the inevitable super-complexity and uncertainty of modern times.’

Educational researchers have stressed the significance of preparing students for transitions from university to ‘the real world’, while others have emphasised personal qualities that support this educational process. Experiential learning and critical reflection have long been valued. The importance of learning communities and creating connections are considered ever more pertinent in this digital age. The need for higher education to prepare emerging adults for sustainability is now met with minimal scepticism. The common thread here is not in preparing students for a tangible future in which predictions on employability, socioeconomic efficiency and global trends are reliably assumed by those who impart that knowledge. On the contrary, it is in preparing students for an intangible future in which their depth and wholeness of character can likely carry them through that which comes their way: better able to be adaptive and creative in the face of actions to be taken (or not taken).

The explicit cultivation of a self that is so centred that one is able to co-exist – soulfully – embracing the fluxes of everyday life with minimal harm and apprehension, is still overlooked in higher education. This may mean the social-emotional preparedness to adapt to new situations, the critical capacities to discern between distinct forms of public information, and the meaningfulness of supporting the most vulnerable in our communities. This is to accommodate messiness and adapt to inevitable change – with a quiet natural ease. Instrumental approaches and technical schools alone cannot teach for such creative knowing in situ (Barnett, 2012). That is, to live with a certain ‘existential angst that derives from an awareness of the gap between one’s actions and one’s limited grounds for those actions’ (Barnett, 2012, p. 77). Teaching for this capacity is ultimately concerned with the formation of authentic being, which is not skills-based but rather grounded in human qualities.

Super-complexity addresses the multifarious and sometimes conflicting ideas of higher education for the knowledge economy, deep disciplinary knowledge creation and student-centred pedagogies. All realisable simultaneously. Super-complexity stresses the permeability of the boundaries between the institutional context, professional and societal domains, and the personal lives of students and educators. In turn, ‘the university may have no clear legitimizing purpose, no definite role, no obvious responsibilities and no secure values’ (Barnett, 2000, p. 22). Essentially, ‘a brave new world beckons for the university, which is not one for the faint-hearted, as the value and relevance of knowledge and higher education are no longer pre-given but in a constant flux’ (Bengtsen, 2018, p. 68). The future university can no longer defer to fulfil its global possibilities and social duties.

‘The future university can no longer defer to fulfil its global possibilities and social duties.’

Regrettably, higher education continues to uphold research, teaching and learning in a fragmented and technical manner that serves societies in creating human repositories of a particular kind of tangible knowledge yet fails to address the common good, wisdom, insight and a greater commitment to care (Dall’Alba, 2012). With the rise in tuition fees and competitive internationalised education, success is consistently measured in quantifiable terms. As such, educators, institutions and policymakers easily lose insight in prioritising an exploration of pedagogies to prepare students for super-complexity and uncertainty. That is to embolden the intangible: the cultivation of human qualities, insight and soul. Perhaps it is educators that need to head this curriculum reform in higher education? Institutions and policymakers may pay attention eventually. Notwithstanding my critique, I remain optimistic.


Barnett, R. (2000). Realizing the university in an age of supercomplexity. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Barnett, R. (2012). Learning for an unknown future. Higher Education Research and Development, 31(1), 65–77. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2012.642841

Bengtsen, S. S. E. (2018). Supercomplexity and the university: Ronald Barnett and the social philosophy of higher education. Higher Education Quarterly, 72(1), 65–74.

Dall’Alba, G. (2012). Re-imagining the University: Developing a capacity to care. In R. Barnett (Ed.), The future university: Ideas and possibilities (pp. 112–122). Abingdon: Routledge.