So much of the way universities are talked about echoes the language of choice. Higher education is spoken of as a marketplace in which students are free to choose their courses, their course providers, and once they arrive, their subjects and their friends. But universities have long been places that foster a different kind of freedom, one much more associated with discipline and limitation. And this freedom is closely connected to their role as institutions.
The constraining features of institutions come quickly to mind, and we all chafe at the bureaucratic controls and procedural red tape that characterise state institutions and the restrictions on behaviour and abuses of trust that have come to be associated with religious, military and other institutional bodies. I don’t want to underplay these issues, but I do want us to think carefully about what it is that makes our lives meaningful, what it is to be human, and what makes our societies liveable.
Because it is the limiting aspects of institutions that also make them enabling. In the university this takes the form of disciplinary divisions, the scientific method, professional conduct, the recognition of superior expertise, personal discipline and the utilisation of resources: it’s these things that permit individual education and the advance of knowledge to take place. These conventions, and their material expression in buildings and bequests and classrooms, enable scholars and students to pass on knowledge and develop it.
The advent of digital technology, and the new economy that comes with it, has given us many choices. It has enabled employees to work from home or when travelling and at the same time has increased self-employment and outsourcing. It has brought service providers more directly to the consumer (think airlines, or services like Uber).
A lot of this is convenient, but it can also be exhausting, leaving us overstretched, time-poor, and alone in the flood of information that doesn’t meet our human needs for love and care and connection. Moreover, it puts up for sale the moral and civic goods we value most. Our society of choice is one only the strong, highly informed, wealthy, healthy and continually available can navigate. The market economy may be beneficial; but the market society is not.
Despite their many flaws, public institutions serve critical functions that bind and safeguard us as citizens and consumers. They make our society fairer by performing functions that privatised providers simply cannot. They ensure fair trade, due process and equitable access, and recognise we are all creatures that have need of material care and assistance. And because they endure through time – sitting above party politics or momentary fashion – they are a crucial part of what makes our democratic society a robust one.
They are tools that help our society survive economic hardship and reap long-term benefits from prosperity; they help us work through political tension and resolve disputes because they are not the creations of our moment only. They need continually to be reformed, but always in ways that are measured against a public good that extends beyond the interest of one generation or socio-economic group.
And more than this, institutions give us ways of not being alone. They give us congregations to join, sporting clubs to belong to, democratic practices to engage in, and associations to be a part of. And this is what makes institutions powerful agents in the world. Lobbying government, protecting our common wealth (most notably the environment), creating systems that recognise our shared needs, holding in check the power of big capital, keeping market logic where it belongs – all these things can only happen when people come together with material resources, organisation and strategy that works at the highest as well as the humblest levels.
Universities matter, not just because they open opportunity and add to our GDP, but because – like our other public institutions – they work with an understanding of time and human capacity that stretches beyond the frames of annual reports, funding cycles, government elections, or even of individual careers.
For all their problems, they are still places that recognise the messy, uncertain and often troubling aspects of human life. Universities are founded on an acknowledgement that we are meaning-making creatures, that so much about life is uncertain, and that expertise takes years to develop. Their power lies in their relational character: it is not monetised exchange and short-term benefit that underpins their ultimate mission, but rather an encounter with ideas and with other people.
With their buildings, libraries and bequests they draw us into a form of time that stretches out beyond the life of any one of us; and with their bars and playing fields and classrooms they bring us into an engagement with one another. In doing so they equip us with thick forms of connection: knowledge, ethics of participation and relationships that give us ways to live and to flourish in the fractured and fluid world of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called ‘liquid modernity’.
Dr Tamson Pietsch is the ARC DECRA Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. She will appear as part of a Sydney Ideas panel discussion: Fixing the System at the Law School on 25 February.