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The Virtual University? Knowledge, Markets and Management
March 14, 2003

Global thinking prizes utility over knowledge, says Anthony Smith.

Note well the question mark in the title of this book. It is the mark of doubting editors, suggesting an honest uncertainty as to whether the case can be convincingly put. This valuable volume summarises and hypothesises but does not presume to claim that computers are reproducing the university experience. Only the serious charlatans of the information age try to pretend, like the providers of dodgy correspondence colleges in the 1920s, that distance learning is an adequate substitute for human association and living institutions in the educational process. But factors in addition to the technological are bringing about major changes in further education, and this book provides fascinating studies of the disintegrating impact that the global economy is inflicting on further education. Its readers are enabled to grasp the connection between computerised learning and the congeries of processes that are conspiring to bring about the increasing commodification of education. For the whole business of imagining a virtual university is inextricable from the steps that have been taken in many countries to turn universities into global corporate undertakings, charging for the units of knowledge they provide.

Information and communication technologies play massive roles in distance education, management systems and the political economy of universities, and such development is enmeshed in transnational educational markets.

The current global talk about "virtual universities" is heavily based on technological futurology, and one purpose of this work is to shift the debate away from technological reductionism to the contemporary realities of university change. Its value lies partly in the way it positions itself between the late Bill Readings, as in his now-classic The University in Ruins (1996), and the more overwrought apostles of a globalised cyber-industry of universal learning. The former argued persuasively from history that the modern university was, and continues to be, an adjunct of the modern state, set up originally to play a crucial part in the integration of national cultures. Now, however, the transnational global economy is breaking down the connections between nation-state, national culture and higher education. It is turning education into a series of personal investments provided at the behest of for-profit corporations, be they private or public sector.

Jones International University, to quote a showcase example, today sees itself as "a virtual campus, using the asynchronous attributes of the internet and the www. 'Anytime and anywhere' aspects of online learning provide a venue for a flexible and convenient learning environment." Those who pass through this experience receive a web-cast cybergraduation. But the term "virtual university" can also be invoked to cover the range of changes coming over established universities and there exists a range of responses to the changing formats of knowledge, markets and management methods, to refer to the triad of the book's title.

Timothy Luke describes in his chapter on developing new university technocultures the growing experiment of the Western Governors University.

The WGU's intention is to create "broader markets for existing educational and assessment services" and "to break down the barriers of regulations, bureaucracies, tradition and turf"; that is to say, to come crashing into the educational sector with neo-liberal zeal, crossing the barriers between public and private provision. It has conjured a cluster of higher-education institutions into its arms. Its activity is intended to constitute an argument for ending state support for public university systems, snubbing them for their feudal guild privileges while setting up for-profit cyber-schools to create skilled workers faster and cheaper than elitist high-tax universities.

The workforce that emerges is narrowly focused; the mission of liberal education, not to speak of civilisation, substantially undercut. The WGU has chosen not to take the path of encouraging universities to reform but to confront the traditional campuses with new competitive market pressures.

The target market for online teaching is slightly above the traditional 18 to 23-year-old student, but today more than 40 per cent of US college and university students are over 25, that percentage having doubled in a generation. In the US, already one-third of higher-education establishments are offering online courses, with more than 1 million enrolments.

Unsurprisingly, some institutions are following Milton Friedman's recommendation to dispense with athletics, research and student services and offer cut-price accredited online degrees. This would free the US wealthy to send its offspring to Ivy League "contact" institutions, and leave them presumably untainted by proximity with proletarian students.

I would select the article by John Urry ("Globalizing the academy") as the text that most aptly sets out the message underlying this book. Urry looks at the ways in which information is being "de-territorialized" in the age of networks, separated from any material form or presence. He juxtaposes the contemporary information blizzard with the slow-moving traditions of higher education, with its unchangeable daily cycle of timetabled classes and terms. Higher education "is part of that mediated and partially globalized public sphere that is no longer confined and reproduced within national boundaries". Scholars no longer work alone, their separate disciplines planted within individual nation-states, but rather work within a new multi-author environment, often in research that has become multidisciplinary, multinational and multi-institutional. The internet is itself a metaphor for the contemporary environment: hugely extensive horizontal communication, uncontrollable and beyond censorship, involving and endlessly intermixing networks of people and machines and texts and images in an unplannable process of fluid proliferation. What should be, or can be, the fate of the academy in an information-based world system in so chaotic a landscape?

The university of the 19th century was the proclaimed defender of a set of civilisational values; it was an autonomous institution, collegial in style, gentlemanly in tone, living by the ethic of academic responsibility.

All of this was founded on collocation; indeed, Newman insisted that his university was a place for teaching universal knowledge. But in the discourse of today, merely to use such conceptions as a starting point, to reverence the mythology of the 19th-century academy automatically presupposes a narrative of decline and crisis. There is no other way to evaluate the present institution if that is deemed to be its past.

Translated to the 21st century it all becomes a lost set of expectations and, moreover, it invites a mental picture of an inward-looking, unworldly ivory tower of an institution. The past institution was never as coherent as we sometimes think, but neither does the one we have today provide what it promises. We are using the wrong metaphor of historical transition and perhaps should opt for a geological one and treat the history of the academy as an accumulating layering of practices, conceptions and initiatives - layerings rather than displacements.

In their introduction and afterword, Kevin Robins and Frank Webster provide a useful "pull-together" of the situation. Endless campaigns for equality in education have resulted in a pressure for democratisation. With this have come new fields of study (from feminism and post-colonialism to cultural studies and postmodernism). The growing scale of higher-education institutions, bringing its own new wave of managerialism, has jeopardised "collegiality". The growing momentum of globalisation has driven a powerful spirit of cosmopolitanism into the academy, ridding it of its more intentionally national project and of the mental framework that once shaped research and teaching.

Liberal education has always nursed a false nostalgia for a world of liberal learning, when knowledge for its own sake dominated the academy. In fact, instrumental knowledge has always been part of university learning; but today it has come to dominate and it is the humanities that have to make the self-apology and struggle to find their place in institutions of which the managers, borrowing the dominant political discourse of the day, constantly question every course for its utility, for its contribution to the economy and "the creation of jobs". The editors quote Lord Robbins in 1980, writing that universities are "where cultivation of scholarship and of scientific speculation (should be) carried on side by side". That was before the university had wholly adopted the causes of industrial capitalism and economic growth as its own. Today, the neat balance of Robbins' musing is being overturned. The compromise has given way to a dominant instrumentality.

One consequence has been the university's loss of its position as the centre of authoritative knowledge, displaced by think-tanks, private corporations and media companies. Knowledge has been decoupled from place in the pursuit of "transferable" skills, competencies without content, alongside widely marketable "analytic abilities", "problem solving" and "communication skills". Meanwhile the alma mater has become a brand, students have become consumers, teachers work on contracts (and talk of "product"), the corporate presence is everywhere, together with the corporate mindset. Performativity has triumphed. Entrepreneurship has entered the soul. Managerial and "audit" cultures have made their entrance and universities have responded with mission statements and business plans.

This valuable collection of essays avoids both cynical renunciation and breathless proclamation: it can be used as a lucid agenda of the issues.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

The Virtual University? Knowledge, Markets and Management

Editor - Kevin Robins and Frank Webster
ISBN - 0 19 924557 6 and 925793 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £50.00 and £19.99
Pages - 332

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