Now the genie is out of its bottle...

Beyond all Reason
August 22, 2003

Ronald Barnett has provided another take on the theme of the university as ruined institution, but it is a well, if at times repetitiously, argued one. The university as conceived in medieval Europe is behind us, and the institution taking its place is concerned chiefly with the exploitation of the forms of knowledge as they emerge. "Community", "responsibility" and "humanity" were attributes of the former institution, traditionally conceived as a site of reason, where reasonableness led in the task of explaining the world.

These dimensions of the university have given way to a series of "ideologies" - some pernicious, some virtuous. Ideology tends to suffocate all that it encounters, because it has power on its side.

The genie of entrepreneurialism - the first on the pernicious list - has taken root in UK as in US universities, and will now never return to its bottle. The challenge it proposes is that of circumscribing it, retaining the openness and the energy-generating nature of the entrepreneurial while preventing it from dominating the management of the university.

The second pernicious ideology is competitiveness, which would, unless held back, distort the main components of academic life because it undermines the traditional self-understandings of academia and corrodes the business of critical inquiry. Universities compete for students, for evaluations, for clients in technological transfer and consultancy work; competition has entered the central practices of academic life, forcing a seeming naturalness in departments, subjects, colleagues - whole universities living in endless mutual rivalry rather than collaboration. Where competition once enjoyed amateur status, as it were, it has now become professional, as Barnett puts it. There are benefits in competition but, as an ideology, its nature is to extend beyond decent boundaries.

The third ideology is the pursuit of "quality", which, like the others, comes "wrapped in reason" and sponsored by the state. When it conquers, it tends to make the relationships between academics bureaucratised and hierarchical, and relations between institutions a matter of strategy rather than collegiality. The pursuit of quality is virtuous, but the permanent assessment of quality leads directly to the malignancy of excessive assessment.

Barnett's fourth pernicious ideology is surreptitious and counterfactual in character and he calls it "the academic community" (in ironic quotation marks). It is at best an expression of hope, for only the barest vestige exists. It implies a condition in which academics recognise one another across frontiers and disciplines and work together in the wider interests of both the academy and society. But the substantial practices that would be necessary to create this condition are absent and so the notion exists, perniciously, as a kind of ideological deception.

Barnett proposes a series of "idealogies" or utopian, positive versions of ideologies, the chief among them being the notion of engagement, a means for carrying the traditional value structure of the university into the future. By keeping the new ideologies in check and/or in mutual balance, it becomes possible to reach out to the wider society without compromise: universities would be free to concentrate on the transfer of technology, the formation of alliances with the corporate sector, the co-sponsorship of projects with commerce and industry, the development of knowledge services through forms of consultancy and collaboration with national bodies.

Barnett's list of "legitimate" forms of engagement are hard to distinguish from the practices that result from his "pernicious ideologies", though one can see that in turning ideologies into idealogies, the intellectual resources of academia are somehow maintained in a more autonomous state.

The argument is at times gripping, but at others it disappears into distinctions without differences. Barnett tries to organise his ideas into diagrams that leave one puzzled and somewhat unconvinced. But what he does is to find formulae of hope amid the corrosive ideologies by which universities have become over-instrumentalised. He suggests they might somehow debate themselves back into their "historic and universal mission as places of collective and rational communication", which means that they must rediscover academic generosity, re-engage the gears of reasonableness, reunite teaching and research and offer ways of making the world a better place. He tries hard in this over-carefully argued essay not to abandon hope amid the gloom and to offer a positive vision while avoiding naive optimism.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Beyond all Reason: Living with Ideology in the University

Author - Ronald Barnett
ISBN - 0 335 20894 0 and 20893 2
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £65.00 and £19.99
Pages - 231

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