Still breathing...

May 30, 1997

Are universities on their deathbeds? Ronald Barnett sees a flicker of life

A recent paper raises the question: can we speak of the death of the university? That the end is nigh for the university may seem preposterous. Yes, it is changing, it is facing more challenges than ever before. But the western university has been around for 800 years. Its longevity is testimony to its powers of adaptation. Why should we think it cannot continue to adapt in the future? Its size, its budgets, its centrality to the modern economy: all these suggest it is needed now more than ever. Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry might be wrestling with substantial problems over the future of British higher education; but the management of its disappearance is not on the agenda.

That there will continue to be institutions bearing the name "university" is not in doubt. The issue is one of ideas: what, if anything, does the title "university" mean in the modern world? One answer is that, in a mass system, it can mean all kinds of things. Institutions that we call "university" can have a variety of functions and forms. Large or small, research-based or not, campus-based or distributed, focused on full-time or on part-time courses, with face-to-face or distance learning, and with courses having an explicit orientation towards the world of work or built around disciplines: we can happily call all of these universities and feel no unease.

But is that the problem? We have lost any sense that the university stands for anything in particular: instead we let the market decide. As an institution with any definite features, the university dissolves. It is the outcome of a negotiation between a number of forces, including the academics, their intellectual capital, the institution's "managers", the institution's market position in relation both to research and to teaching and students' expectations. On this reading, the university has no essential qualities. It has no substance independently of the fallout of positioning, negotiation, market readings, and historic traditions. A university simply is the resultant messiness; there is nothing unifying the institutions which take the name of university.

This, however, is an incoherent position. That we cannot easily identify common properties uniting "universities" does not mean that universities can be anything we want them to be. There is a general unease when we sense that universities are simply interested in making money, or in packing in students, or in taking donations from ethically dubious sources. Universities have their limits: if the limits - which we hardly understand - are exceeded, then an institution forfeits its right to the title.

This suggests that there is life in the old institution yet. Even if we cannot be sure about the minimal conditions of being a university, some necessary conditions there seem to be. It is too early, after all, to talk of the end of the university.

And yet significant features which we take for granted in a university are under threat. First, the university has been built on a project of knowledge, but what counts as knowledge is now changing in society: knowledge is becoming prized for its effectiveness rather than its truth.

Second, universities have become organisations, characterised by missions, plans and decision-making according to financial and numerical performance indicators. This move inserts instrumental reason and power structures into what has traditionally been a site of communicative reason between equals. The university as an "academic community" was largely a myth; but now, even the myth is hardly sustainable. The university, as an organisation, takes on the economic and instrumental rationality of the wider society.

Third, and perhaps most problematically, the university's cultural role is uncertain. Postmodernism brings in its train epistemological challenges, in its questioning of anything that smacks of absolute principles of reasoning. But its challenge on the cultural front is even more incisive. The challenge is quite simple: it is that the university no longer has any ethical base. It is not exactly devoid of values; on the contrary, opposed and confused values permeate all of its activities. But the university, as a cultural project, is shorn of any particular value structure. Multiple value positions may challenge those in universities to work through their value position. Even if they do, espoused values are undermined by values-in-action. In short, ethical relativism is even more of a challenge than epistemological relativism. In turn, the contribution of the university as a cultural good can no longer be assumed.

These three charges come together. One justification for the western university has been that of a force for enlightenment. But this notion is in the dock as outworn and unsustainable. Epistemologically, knowledge frameworks are irredeemably contested at best and, at worst, are the outcomes of power and interests. Ethically, the idea of enlightenment can be read as just another "grand narrative", in which the university assumes an unwarranted position of cultural elitism.

How, then, can we talk without embarrassment of "the university"? Are we at a turning point, in which "the university", as an idea, is losing all its enlightening and emancipatory potential?

A phoenix can rise from the ashes through the university revisiting and reinterpreting a central concept in its collective psyche - that of critical thinking. Universities have rarely done justice to the notion of critical thinking, tending to work within given paradigms of thought and action.

Now, critical thinking is needed more than ever. But, in itself, critical thinking will not suffice. For universities, and those who work in them, are faced not only with challenges to frames of thought and knowledge; they are also faced with challenges to frames of action and of self-identity.

To critical reason in the university, therefore, we should add critical self-reflection and critical action. Consultancy, self-presentation in the media, changing the curricula to take on more work-based modes, engaging with multiple stakeholders, taking on the agendas of "skills" and "competences", conducting "policy studies": all these call for new forms of critical self-reflection and critical action, both within the university and in its interactions with the wider world.

This agenda may seem straightforward; it is just an extension of what the university has always preached. But it is a radical agenda. It calls for new forms of communication, of interaction, of experimentation, and of collective self-analysis. It is a conception of the university as a site of the continuing formation of critical being. Through such continuing self-critique of its embedded ideas, actions, and understandings, the university can go on living in the new world while maintaining continuity with certain of its traditional self-conceptions. The end of the university is threatened; but there is life in it yet.

Ronald Barnett is professor of higher education and dean of professional development at the Institute of Education, University of London. His book, Higher Education: A Critical Business, is published by the Open University Press. on June .

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