Head in the clouds, feet on the ground

Ronald Barnett offers an imaginative approach to the idea of the university: ‘feasible utopias’ that open up possibilities for renewal beyond the dominant ideas of the market and the pessimistic reactions they elicit

January 3, 2013

For 40 years, I have been fascinated by one question: “What is a university?” After all, the idea of the university conjures hopes of human understanding, wise action and communication in and across the world. And yet these ideas have been in difficulty for more than a century. My own experience in working across the sector has both fuelled these interests and testified to the challenges of realising the university’s large ideals. To this end, I have written a series of books on the matter, which - doubtless immodestly - have sought to suggest some ideas and principles as a way of answering my abiding question.

The question is at last being asked one way or another across the world, and with increasing urgency. But the public debate remains depressingly thin and is marked by a poverty of imagination. For the most part it sidesteps the fundamentals and instead concerns itself with technical issues as to the financing of the system. The matter of the relationship between public and private universities is, too, heard frequently. Where the purposes of the university are seriously engaged, a dominant view quickly becomes apparent: the idea of the “entrepreneurial university” that should not just understand it is part of the global economy but vigorously play out that part.

According to this view, the university should recognise that it is in possession of knowledge products and services that can carry it forward. These can even generate income for the university, so releasing it from financial dependence on the state (and, whisper it softly, so release the state from any responsibility to fund universities). This all fits in nicely with the so-called “neoliberal wave” ridden by governments to encourage market mechanisms in public services. As a result, both state and universities come to sing from the same hymn sheet. A vocabulary quickly emerges among politicians, state officials, university rectors and vice-chancellors of the “global economy”, “competition”, “success”, “customers”, “surplus income”, “multiple income streams” and “knowledge transfer”. The entrepreneurial university is, as we may term it, an endorsing philosophy. It notes that the university is caught up in the burgeoning knowledge economy and sets out a mission that further encourages movement that is already under way.

A rather serious and somewhat unremarked flaw in the concept is its tendency towards parochialism. This charge will be surprising, perhaps even heretical: isn’t the entrepreneurial university a conscious player in the global economy? Transnational education, flows of international students, overseas campuses and cross-national research collaboration: all these are signs, surely, of reaching out more and more widely? However, the entrepreneurial university comes very often to focus on here-and-now problems in the world, often of a rather local kind. And this phenomenon is reinforced by the coming of the “corporate university”, which self-avowedly is concerned with orchestrating itself as having a unique mission with its own projects. Connections between “university” and matters of universal interest are being put in jeopardy.

In the wash of this tidal movement in favour of the entrepreneurial university are two other sets of ideas that also generally endorse the contemporary state of affairs. First, there are trivial ideas such as the “university of excellence” and the “first-class university”. These shrink from spelling out what is meant by “excellence” and “first-class”. They offer no fundamental sense of a way forward and turn out to be window-dressing for the most powerful institutions.

Second, there are ideas that are critical of the contemporary university and endorse largely technological developments. Here reside ideas such as the “virtual university”, the “borderless university” and the “edgeless university”. These ideas tend to castigate the contemporary sector for its alleged inertia and urge that it jump aboard the latest (and often largely technological) fad.

All these ideas seem to be carrying the day. Lurking somewhat in the shadows are counter-views.

First, there is a critique of the entrepreneurial university. Mounted especially within the academy, this viewpoint arms itself with a forlorn vocabulary including terms such as “neoliberalism”, “performativity”, “commodification” and “cognitive capitalism”. Suitable epithets might be the “capitalist university” or the “performative university”. This is a philosophy that exhibits a bleak pessimism: strong in its condemnation of the entrepreneurial university, it offers us very little that is positive.

This critical perspective seems almost to revel in a dystopian view of the university (a fate from which apparently there is no escape). Such a critique actually plays into the hands of the entrepreneurialists, for its tacit story is that the university is becoming one-dimensional and can be no other. Only hand-wringing and laments for a golden age that never was are on offer here.

Second, and in search of a more constructive critique, there is a cluster of viewpoints that are seeking to work out an idea of the university concerned with its potential social role. The “public university”, the “world university” and the “civic university” fall into this camp. There is surely merit in these ideas and their associated efforts but they, too, are limited by springing from defensiveness. Optimistic in tone they may be, but they are self-limiting.

There is a major problem, too, that the public-good theorists are reluctant to acknowledge, which is that in a fragmented age the idea of a “public” is problematic. Talk of the “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable” nature of knowledge - argumentative gambits from the public-good theorists - fails to address the forces at work through which knowledge is becoming both a source of rivalry and exclusion.

Last, there is a group of ideas promulgated by philosophers and social theorists that are really meta-ideas of the university. They desist from spelling out any particular conception but instead focus on the general conditions that should govern communication within the university. Here, for example, we find Bill Readings’ “university of dissensus” and Jacques Derrida’s “university without conditions”. These ideas are doubly deficient. On the one hand, operating at a stratospheric level above the messiness of institutional life, they avoid any serious attempt to grasp the forces at work and the empirical complexity and diversity of higher education in the 21st century. On the other hand, their abstract nature fails to offer any programmatic principles oriented to fundamental change and action.

The whole debate is hopelessly impoverished. It is impoverished because it is conceptually thin, being dominated by an overly confident discourse in favour of the entrepreneurial university and a largely defensive discourse in reaction. (What are Universities For?, the recent book by Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, is surely an example of the latter.) It is hopeless because it is largely without hope, hope that the university could be quite other than it is.

But lurking in the literature there is a huge array of ideas on the subject. Indeed, there has been an extraordinary proliferation of ideas in the past few years but, as noted, there are deficiencies in most of those on offer. Accordingly, we need not just more ideas but better ones.

Can concepts be found that are at once likely to be suitably critical of the way matters are unfolding, have a sensitivity to and an awareness of the deep and global structures within which universities are situated, and yet convey an appropriate optimism as to the paths that just might be opening up and offer a line of thought for action oriented towards the well-being of the world?

Self-evidently, ideas that are going to carry the university forward in an unstable world have to be imaginative. But this isn’t enough: as we have observed, there are many kinds of imagination in relation to the university already present (dystopian, ideological, superficial and so on), and most are problematic in some way. What we need, therefore, is a particular kind of imagination.

It is tempting to suggest that what is required is a utopian imagination but that would invite the suspicion of fantastical, castles-in-the-air thinking. Thinking of this kind does have its place, however, if only to open an imaginative space to take universities forward. Perhaps The Open University scholar Jan Parker’s “theatrical university” and University College Cork academic Donncha Kavanagh’s “university as fool” are examples. In a way, they challenge us really to think hard about the subject, to become poets of the university.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the idea emerges of “feasible utopias” - utopias that might just be realisable. A motto here might be that of “head in the clouds but feet on the ground”.

Clearly, conditions attach to the emergence of imaginative ideas that are likely to gain legitimacy and be effective. These would include feasibility (do they offer a path forward?), scope (do they have practicality plus theoretical and empirical depth?), emergence (are they capable of continuing reinterpretation in the context of the university’s changing circumstances?), “timefulness” (do they allow for measured contemplation and the long view, and not just focus on the short-term and fast-moving rhythms of academic life?) and locale (are they sensitive not merely to the university’s global and local position but also to its universal calling?).

Is there an idea that might live up to these five conditions? One concept is that of the “ecological university” - ecological in the sense of being seized of its interconnectedness with and responsibilities in the world. It would look to identify ways in which it could venture beyond aiding the sustainability of the world by also looking to advance global well-being. And here, well-being relates to all of the ecologies attendant on the university - including knowledge ecologies, institutional ecologies, social ecologies, economic ecologies, cultural ecologies, personal ecologies and ecologies of reasoning and understanding.

To speak of ecology here is not just to point to the many networks with which the university is interconnected but also to consider its responsibilities towards those ecologies. And it brings into view that while individual universities will think through the particular responsibilities that might open for them, we can still entertain the idea that the university has connections with universal human concerns. There is much talk of “globalisation” these days but too little sense of the university moving against a horizon of universal hopes and themes.

The ecological university may just turn out to be a feasible utopia. The key point, however, is that in the idea, we can perhaps glimpse an opening for imaginative possibilities for the university that do not derive from self-interest but are prompted by concerns of a wider kind, perhaps even something of a universal character.

What are the prospects for this? Can the university advance with feasible utopias? It is worth distinguishing here between the “imaginative university” and the “imagining university”. The former is a university that can be seen to produce interesting and worthwhile ideas as to its possibilities (many such institutions can be identified in which innovative ideas are being put into action). The latter, on the other hand, is the imaginative university plus, geared to being continually imaginative about the possibilities not just for itself but also for the university as such.

Is there a social space for this kind of university, some air in which imaginative ideas might breathe? A problem here is a fear of imagining: universities have convinced themselves that they are boxed in, unable to think or act in ways that are going to contribute to the world’s well-being. However, we should not be too pessimistic: some universities across the world are becoming systematically imaginative and encouraging of imaginative ideas. There is more space available for utopian thinking of a practical kind than many would wish us to believe.

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