Today's university is caught "between turbulence and torpor" - and creative thinking about the sector's future is being crushed by the "stultifying" discourse of higher education policy, a conference has heard.
The university of the present is "hypermodernised" and characterised as "diversified, liquefied, globalised, edgeless, marketised and technologised", Louise Morley, director of the University of Sussex's Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research, told the British Educational Research Association's annual conference at the University of Warwick last week.
There were areas of the academy that now changed "overnight", she added, but at the same time, other features remained "depressingly" the same.
"There's a lot of inertia, particularly when it comes to inequalities," said Professor Morley in a keynote lecture, "Imagining the University of the Future".
"We have speeded up intellectuals on the move ... but universities are underpinned by archaism," she said. "The construction of the ideal student is like something from the 1940s at times, and the male dominance of leadership suggests we are not modern organisations."
There also remained "toxic correlations" between access to higher education and social identity.
Meanwhile, the discourse of "excellence", "the knowledge economy", "innovation", "enterprise" and "knowledge transfer" was "stale, tired, deadening and stultifying", she said. She added that higher education policy had "evacuated sociology from its discourses and debates".
In teaching and learning, for example, much discussion "ignored social identities altogether" and had a "technologised" view of the way people teach and learn.
Think-tanks were now highly influential in imagining the future of the academy, Professor Morley observed. Their skill was to "package up a whole bricolage of research findings and present it to politicians and policymakers in a sound-bite formation that gets them heard in a way that many academics are not".
She also asked whether the university of the future was heading back to the "elitist" bodies of the past.
There had been a return to the arguments of the 1980s about the public sector being "sluggish and self-serving", she said. With the banking crash, risk and debt had been transferred to the public sector and "a whole new cast of grotesques" had been "wheeled out" to justify funding cuts.
Business was being painted as the saviour of the public sector, and there was an assumption that "the more we are squeezed, the more creative and inventive we will become".
In a reference to arguments made by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, in his book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And How They Can Give It Back (2010), Professor Morley said claims that the financial crisis was the fault of her generation were "very ageist" and a "major diversionary tactic".
Recent pleas from the heads of research-intensive universities to spare their institutions from cuts suggested that dystopian ideas about the "callousness of prestige" were being enacted; elite organisations were apparently "happy" to see others shut.
Professor Morley argued that academics needed to "discover new conceptual grammars" and "disrupt social class and gender privilege by interrogating and accounting for the absences".
The university of the future needed to "recover critical knowledge" and institutions themselves must become influential think-tanks driving policy, she said.