Selfish models lose social touch

Scholar says today's universities must rediscover their responsibilities. Rebecca Attwood reports

July 9, 2009

Some universities are more focused on what they can take from society than what they can give, a leading educationist has suggested.

In a keynote speech at the Higher Education Academy's conference in Manchester last week, Ron Barnett, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, argued that the rise of the "entrepreneurial" university had seen some institutions turn themselves "outside in".

The entrepreneurial university looked at society to see what it could extract from it "for its own ends", and was out for itself, he said.

Setting out a series of modern- university models in a lecture titled "Realising the University in the 21st Century", Professor Barnett argued that the university was a "bit of a conceptual mess".

In its original state, the university was "metaphysical", characterised by a sense that knowledge allowed humankind access to a different world and order of being, he said.

Eight hundred years later, the research university emerged. Knowledge was fragmented into different disciplines and research gained primacy over teaching, he added.

Now, besides the entrepreneurial university, the "bureaucratic university" obsessed with its own rules and the "cosmopolitan university" have arisen.

Professor Barnett said that some would argue for the concept of the "liquid university", which "moves in all directions at once, all time frames at once, all regions at once... an amoeba-type creature". But the danger of this model was that some influences were more powerful than others, he added.

"What are the ethics? Are they just muddy, or are the streams a little polluted, as the university seizes what is available to it?" he asked.

Alternative models include the "therapeutic university" centred on care and concern for its students, and the "authentic university", which takes its responsibilities for inquiry seriously.

Professor Barnett argued in favour of the "ecological university... not in itself, and not for itself, but for others, acknowledging and understanding its responsibilities to the world".

It was possible for the university to be "better than it is", he said, adding that "institutions that take the title of 'university' are not universities in the sense I'm calling them. They are not yet living up to the... practical ideals I am envisaging," he said.

He suggested that "a new kind of metaphysical university" may emerge, and argued that the university could now "determine, to some degree, what it might become".

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

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