'The university' is dead, long live the university

February 11, 2000

The old notion of the university is gone. Its reinvention, says Ronald Barnett, brings new responsibilities

Today, the university lives with multiple callings. The injunctions multiply: high-quality research-in-itself, research with a cash value, consultancy (both to generate income and to assist global economic competitiveness), regional development, high-quality courses delivered to explicit standards, wide participation, course delivery responsive to global markets and lifelong learning and employability.

These callings are manifest of the agendas that befall the university. At a deeper level are available large stories by which the university might understand itself in the contemporary age; and these, too, accumulate. To stories of knowledge and culture (essentially the legacies of 19th-century German and English ideas of higher education) have been added stories of production, self-fulfilment, democracy, emancipation and critique.

How, amid all these callings, is the university to understand itself? Does it have no limits, no universal responsibilities? It appears not.

Two policy paths open up, and neither evokes a universal calling. On the one hand is a plea for "diversity": no one "university" can meet all of the callings that come its way; instead, each "university" should identify its own portfolio by determining the callings to which it is prepared to offer a response and the degree to which it is to do so. Any mix is, in theory, acceptable.

On the other hand is an urging towards "the entrepreneurial university". Here, a single "university" simply goes where it might as market opportunities open up. In this approach, leadership becomes the art of enabling staff to understand that the university has no core business, that any of its past may have to be jettisoned and any new activity may be embraced.

On either reading, the university as a concept is no more. Amid diversity, there may be no one thing that any "university" has in common with its neighbour. Amid entrepreneurialism, the university has no responsibility: it becomes what market chances offer it. Either way, there is nothing that binds "universities" together for which they stand as such. As a concept, therefore, the university is empty.

Does this matter? After all, that the university has to accommodate proliferating frames of reference is only a reflection of what it is to live in the modern world, whether at the individual or organisational level. Why should universities be let off the hook? Indeed, a world of multiple and contesting frameworks - a world of supercomplexity - has been brought about in part by the university itself. It is only justice that the university should live in this world that we all have to live in, even if the university as an idea collapses.

But allowing the idea of the university to collapse does matter. Indeed, we need an idea of the university more than ever, an idea attuned to the craziness of the world that we are in. If supercomplexity is the name of this new world, with its multiple, proliferating and contesting frames of understanding, then a new triple role opens up for the university.

First, the world wants the university to be even more creative than hitherto. In an age of supercomplexity, research has to be reorganised so as to be much more likely to engender daring new frames of understanding.

Second, the university has the pedagogic task of enabling us to understand the character of this world. To this degree, the entrepreneurialists are right. We have to live with multiple frameworks. A responsibility beckons in assisting the public in the wider society to comprehend the new frameworks, in all their supercomplexity.

Third, in the age of supercomplexity, human beings are faced with the task of living purposefully in this world. Amid supercomplexity, the fundamental educational problem is not one of knowledge but of being. This, then, constitutes the third role of the university in the new age: to enable individuals both within itself and in the wider society to live purposefully amid supercomplexity.

This triple set of responsibilities - of compounding supercomplexity, of comprehending it and of living within it - is a new set of responsibilities; and it is bereft of old notions of knowledge and truth. This triple calling reflects the discontinuity between older notions of the university and the new order. But it also represents continuities with the past: the Enlightenment function of the university, to confront existing understandings and to bring new understandings, finds a place still.

The idea of the university is dead, therefore, but a new idea of the university can arise, built around the ineradicable sense of uncertainty of the new age. It is even an idea that recovers something of the university's earlier Enlightenment, self-conception and hopes for a better world.

Ronald Barnett is professor of higher education and dean of professional development at the Institute of Education, University of London. His latest book is Realising the University, Open University Press.

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