The outcome of the European Union referendum is a moment to consider the fundamental matter of what it is to be a university. Just how might we, how should we, understand the idea of the university in the 21st century?
We may venture an answer by trying to understand first the actual situation of the university as an institution.
It is surely evident that universities are worldly institutions. Most are trying increasingly to forge links with other universities across the world and they seek to attract their students on an international basis.
Across universities with research profiles, academics are increasingly working together in cross-national teams, and producing papers for the academic literature with multiple authors drawn from more than one country. And considerations of matters across the world enter curricula, the student experience and the framing of research topics.
But, more than this, more than their being active in cross-national networks, universities are increasingly orienting themselves to the world. This is perhaps not fully recognised, for accompanying this stance on the part of universities as institutions, we are surely seeing – dimly, perhaps, at the moment – an enrichment emerging in the idea of the university.
The idea of the entrepreneurial university – beloved of many over the past generation – is actually gradually being left behind.
We are now coming to have a sense that what it is to be a university in the 21st century necessarily includes a positive orientation to the world, in all of its aspects. The university – as an idea – is not only networked across the world, not only active in many countries, but takes up a positive stance towards the world. Indeed, it has a care for the world, wanting to play its part in helping to improve the world.
Gradually emerging over the past two or three decades has been, as we may term it, an idea of the “ecological university”. The ecological university understands that, as a matter of fact, it is implicated in several ecosystems – of knowledge, institutions, the economy, individuals’ well-being, culture, learning and the natural environment.
Whether it recognises it or not, the university, as an institution, swims in and across these ecosystems. But the ecological university goes further. It understands itself as having responsibilities towards playing its part in strengthening these ecosystems, in repairing them where they need to be repaired, and in helping to take each of them to a new level of well-being. The ecological university orients itself and acts in the interests of the whole Earth.
This, I contend, is at the heart of the evolving idea of the university as it is understood around the world. It is an idea of the university for the 21st century and is already evident in the ways in which many universities are coming to understand themselves and are interacting with the world.
Against these considerations about the university both as institution and as idea, the referendum result is surely a grave matter.
Possible impact on the international reputation of UK universities
Whether justified or not, this result is bound to project a sense around the world that UK universities are shrinking from such a broad conception of what it is to be a university. Practically, as an institution, there are likely to be significant impacts, on the flow of students from the EU – and even on the much more limited flow of students from the UK into the EU – and on the involvement of UK universities in cross-European research and public engagement projects.
But, more than that, it could well be that UK universities will come to be seen, around the world, as less concerned with the world, again however unjustified such perceptions may be. UK universities may be seen as moving, conceptually and practically, in a direction opposite to that now widely understood to characterise just what it is to be a university in the 21st century.
The EU referendum result may, therefore, come to herald a fundamental change in the ways in which UK universities are perceived, and to their cost. And if this is the case, in the medium term, there could be even more instability for UK universities, as they are felt to be falling away from the universally understood, if newly emerging, idea of the ecological university.
Precisely, then, at the moment when, worldwide, the idea of the university is poised to be elevated towards a new stage – beyond that of “the entrepreneurial university” – and into a new level of interconnectedness, so UK universities may be seen, however unfairly, as falling back to a more parochial stance. If this happens, purely as a result of changing perceptions, the position of UK universities in the global rankings will be in jeopardy, irrespective of any readjustment in the actual pattern of their activities.
It would be important, therefore, that UK universities put aside their “branding” positions, and work together to project a sense that, collectively, they are continuing to take seriously their responsibilities in and for the world. They should try to show that, collectively, they have concerns about the whole world, in all of its manifestations, and will go on developing their capacities to act in this ecological way.
There is an irony here. That this collectivism across UK universities is unlikely to emerge is indicative of the Weltanschauung in favour of markets – and the inequalities in the wider society of the UK that they have heralded. This has arguably, in part, led to this EU referendum result; and is something to which, to a large degree, the UK universities have themselves subscribed.
Accordingly, UK universities have on their hands not only immediate practical challenges but challenges too about the ideas of the university, and for which they wish to be heralded across the world.
Ronald Barnett is emeritus professor of higher education at UCL Institute of Education. Visit his website.
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