Six degrees of separation

Universities are often accused of not moving with the times. I don’t necessarily disagree with that criticism – it can be challenging being nimble when you’re very big and tied up in regulation – but it isn’t a criticism that sits well with me. So many of our universities are at the forefront of research and development, pushing the boundaries of science and the arts, that we are not just moving with the times; we’ve already unpacked and are sat on the sofa with a cup of tea before ‘the times’ has even walked through the door.

That being so, I set to wondering just what it is that really characterises modern life and the times we live in. As I sat reflecting silently in front of the TV it suddenly struck me – Kevin Bacon was trying to persuade me to switch to a new mobile phone network with ultrafast broadband capabilities.

“Many of our universities are at the forefront of research and development, pushing the boundaries of science and the arts.”

It was the perfect illustration of ‘the times’. Nowadays everyone is connected. We all have mobile phones, wifi is common place, and social media has ensured that you know exactly what your best friend in Australia had for breakfast this morning. In fact, I even know what several strangers in Australia had for breakfast.

Of course, Kevin Bacon wasn’t a random choice of celebrity endorsement either. The idea of six degrees of separation – where everyone is on average approximately six steps away from any other person in the world – has its origin in the work of Karinthy in the 1920s. The game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ was invented as a play on the concept: the goal is to link any actor to Kevin Bacon through no more than six connections, where two actors are connected if they have appeared in a movie or commercial together.

It is this ‘small world’ that really characterises the times we live in, and with a jolt I realised that it is also this connectedness that students really need from universities to help them succeed as graduates. I’m not just talking about the technology; I’m talking about a whole new mindset.

“Connectedness also needs to extend beyond our academic portfolio to encompass the way we work together and build relationships.”

At BU this started with our new vision and values – BU2018 – which recognises the importance of balanced higher education. By that I mean a fusion of excellent education, research and professional practice. The idea is that all of these elements are complementary and need to be connected if the students are to draw maximum benefit from them.

A great example of fusion in action at BU is the Student Environment Research Team (SERT). SERT brings together students and recent BU graduates to work on environmental consultancy projects with the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to monitor the quantity, distribution and impact of Sika deer in Purbeck.

Not only are students involved in cutting edge research, but that research informs their education via teaching and they also build their professional practice skills through consultancy with large national organisations. Perhaps most importantly, projects like this establish our students as co-creators of knowledge with BU’s academics – yes they’re here to learn, but they also have an important contribution to make to our academic community.

Of course, connectedness also needs to extend beyond our academic portfolio to encompass the way we work together and build relationships. For BU this has partly been about developing the sorts of links with industry that ensure our students are learning in a real world environment that is informed by business needs. A key component of this is making sure that every student at BU has the opportunity to undertake a work placement on their course; in fact we have more students on sandwich courses than any other university in England.

“I want BU to prepare our graduates not just for the world of today, but for the world of tomorrow.” 

But it is also about changing the way we work and our attitude to connectivity. Some of the solutions have been quite simple but surprisingly powerful. The BU research blog for example has provided a central focal point for research at BU, and it recently won a gold HEIST award for best internal communications campaign.

A quick glance at the blog yields another great example of BU’s connectivity – the BU Dementia Institute. This is a cross-disciplinary initiative which is working collaboratively with local service providers and people to increase the quality of care and support offered to those with dementia and their families, and to raise awareness of the under-diagnosis of dementia.

Changing people’s mindsets takes time, but it is essential if we want to help people close the gap between their aspirations and achievements. I want BU to prepare our graduates not just for the world of today, but for the world of tomorrow.

At BU, we are creating something special – a real world education that equips BU alumni  with the skills, knowledge, experience and confidence to really stand out and shine.