Universities have long been viewed as institutions that produce knowledge for the common good.
They do this in a variety of ways: by undertaking research that leads to developments in health, culture, science and technology; by teaching skills that equip graduates to serve the community in their work as teachers, doctors, engineers and artists; by fostering citizenship and self-understanding; by sitting at the head of a universal education system; and by serving as apolitical places dedicated to disinterested scholarship and learning.
These are the reasons that, throughout the 20th century, societies have valued universities, funded them, and seen them as public institutions.
At the start of the 21st century, however, universities find themselves in turbulent times. In the UK, regulatory reforms are dramatically reshaping the ways our higher education institutions are funded and how they go about their core tasks.
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I spoke recently at the Guardian’s Future of Higher Education Summit about the importance of universities, and it’s now gone up on their website. You can watch the talk here, or read the text below.
“As a panel we were asked to speak about what the sector can do to pull together and communicate the value of higher education to politicians and the public. I just want to make three points.
First, I think we need to begin by calling the problem by its name; the problem that besets British universities at the moment. We often get caught up in all the issues whether that’s open access or REF or student fees – we get lost in the detail or we get crisis fatigue. But I think these are all symptoms of a problem that I call the enclosure of the epistemic commons.
Second, I think we can put our own house in order. That involves a number of things. It involves thinking about ourselves as engaged in a shared project across our various diverse institutions; it involves abolishing the mission groups; and it also involves democratising internally – there is often a real disconnect between the official image of a university projected by managers and that which academics such as myself feel that we are engaged in, which is very messy and involves students crying in your office sometimes.
But then third, and perhaps most importantly, I think we need to tell new kinds of stories about who we are and what we do. At the CDBU* we have various ideas about how we can do this, but I think we need to articulate the value of our institutions. I think universities are really remarkable kinds of institutions. They are one of the few places where older people and younger people come together in a partnership; where alive people and dead people talk to each other across the distances of time; where people who are inside the institution collaborate with people who are outside the institution; where people who are here collaborate with people who are far away. They are places dedicated to the messy, on-going, and uncertain business that is life, and this is deeply, deeply human. Unfortunately these are qualities that are not tailored to the marketised, priced world where value is commodified and preferably tradable, but it’s exactly for these reasons that they are very, very precious institutions and it’s the reason that I think we need to defend them.”
*Council for the Defence of British Universities
I recently attended a fascinating workshop on trust and authenticity in interwar Britain. In a period that witnessed the crumbling of old certainties and the appearance of new forms of mass culture, communication and politics, the question of what was real and who could be trusted became a pressing concern. In a world in which everything seemed in flux, what measures did people use to assess authenticity and whose truth-claims did they trust?
Such questions have a long history in the context of higher education. For much of the 19th century, a university degree stood as a decisive marker of class and cultural distinction. Teaching a classical and liberal (and often religious) curriculum, universities sought less to impart specialised knowledge than to cultivate the character and fashion the morals of the elite young men who would be leaders in politics and society.
But by the 1870s, revolutions in transport and communication, industrial development and intensified global trade had begun to refashion the established relationship between culture and power. Rapidly growing in importance were types of knowledge – scientific, technological and professional – that had traditionally sat outside the universities’ domain. Although still a marker of cultural attainment, the old generalist university degree had little attraction for those seeking a career in these expanding sectors. Not only did the universities face charges of irrelevance, they also found themselves in danger of losing their role as institutions of wide cultural, social and political influence…
… read the rest of this post in the THE magazine 6 Dec 2012 issue.