Keith Kahn-Harris

Re-imagining the university (again but this time differently)

There’s nothing particularly new about calling for the university to be re-thought/re-imagined/rebuilt. How could it be otherwise? An institution set up in order to promote reflection will inevitably attract some of that reflection onto itself. Universities attract not just self-reflection but also hopes, dreams and fantasies – the desire for a better world. Concomitantly, the failures of the university as it actually exists makes it the object of disappointed critique.

In the following reflections and suggestions I am no less guilty of this self-indulgent dreaming and criticising than the many who have gone before me. As a weak defence I offer my biography: post-PhD, I have taught and conducted research at a number of universities, but never full-time, never with a permanent contract. I am both an insider and an outsider in the university system. I am drawn to it but chafe at its restrictions.

The risk of hubris in a comparatively lowly scholar like myself re-imaging the university, is obvious. The university is remarkably resistant to sudden, dramatic change – at least in this country and in most democracies. The university was a major preoccupation of the 1968 generation who sought, through sit-ins and teach-ins, to turn the institution into the engine of revolutionary social transformation. It was similarly the target of the 1980s Thatcherite/Reaganite revolutionaries, who sought to turn the university into the plaything of the market. Yet most universities, in Britain at least, resemble neither revolutionary communes nor business training schools. Universities are hybrid, ambivalent beasts, resistant to being turned irrevocably in any one direction: the free-market private Buckingham University remains almost unique in the UK, just as radical 60s ‘free’ universities petered out around the world or assimilated into the mainstream. Excepting small, specialist institutions, most universities remain broad-based, teaching and researching in a range of areas, neither fully embracing or rejecting the market. And that’s probably how most people want them.

So I’m not a doom-laden critic who dismisses the present-day university. There’s plenty of innovative thinking, inspiring teaching and ground-breaking research going on in even the most modest campuses. But despite the British university’s resilience there remain some endemic problems that appear to be getting worse. The onslaught of managerialism beginning in the 1980s has meant that universities have become ever more bureaucratic, with academics deluged with administration and incessant targets. The Research Assessment Exercise has forced academics into an endless round of publication in academic journals, with attempts to communicate with the public being essentially penalised. There is constant pressure to put in grant applications with all their endless form-filling. The range of activities encouraged within universities has become ever narrower and the costs of thinking or working in unconventional ways, particular for junior scholars, are high.

These problems don’t invalidate the university – the reason to re-imagine the university is not because universities are worthless as they are. Rather, the reason to re-imagine the university is because the very resilience of universities mean that they are resistant to wholesale reinvention. Or to put it another way: to really address the endemic problems within the university system you need to set up new institutions. With universities and academics becoming ever more risk-averse the chances of wholesale reform are slim: what we need are new institutions that challenge the existing models.

Attempts to re-imagine the university often fall to convince. They can be too conceptual, getting lost in abstract ponderings on the nature of education. They can be too partial, obsessing on a limited set of issues such as access or examinations. They can simply be impractical, failing to acknowledge the realities of the current situation. Visions of the new university have to be visions of how to make it work.

So what is my vision? Here I only have space for a few principles. Hopefully though, the framework I set out is both practical enough to be doable but also undefined enough so as not to pre-judge how one might put some flesh on my ideas’ bare bones. The following principles go from the more general to the more specific:

First principle: the university should be a place for social and personal transformation

The university should not just be a place for disinterested reflection, it should be a crucible of change: change from the personal to the social.

Second principle: many institutions can become universities

It is odd that with the plethora of innovative educational institutions and think tanks, so few aspire to be universities. Universities can be developed in a wide variety of forms; they can ‘look’ – at least at the start – very different from the standard model.

Third principle: the university needs to treat all its members as scholars

The division between faculty and students, between teachers and learners needs to be eroded. We all have something to learn and we are all capable of new insights. The student-teacher division should be reconceptualised as between ‘student scholars’ and ‘faculty scholars’.

Fourth principle: the ideal scholar is an active scholar

Universities ought to encourage scholars to be active, to explore their interests, to pursue hunches. They should encourage scholars to conceptualise their work broadly. Universities need to give scholars the space to try out things that may not work.

Fifth principle: the ideal scholar has time for reflection

While the ideal scholar is an active scholar, activity needs to be balanced with the need to reflect. Scholars need quiet time, when the demands of work recede.

Sixth principle: the ideal scholar researches

Just as the scholar should be conceptualised broadly, so should research. Research is something that can be conducted not just by graduate students and academics but by more junior learners as well.

Eighth principle: the ideal scholar teaches

The connection between teaching and research should be at the heart of the university. But teaching can be conceptualised broadly to encompass a host of different activities that encourage learning. Even student scholars can help facilitate the learning and scholarship of others.

Ninth principle: the university should have a diverse range of scholars

While the student-teacher divide needs to be eroded, there is still a need for some kind of institutionalised recognition of seniority. There also need to be recognition that not all scholars have the same strengths: some are more committed to teaching, some to public engagement, some to research. While the ideal scholar does at least something in all these areas, different specialisms and interests can still be recognised.

Tenth principle: the university needs a flexible bureaucracy

Universities should recognise and reward different levels of student-scholar achievement; they should set standards to ensure that faculty scholars do not abuse their position. In these respects, the re-imagined university may look superficially similar to the old. However, the bureaucracy needs to be flexible, to respond to different needs and to avoid being an end unto itself. How would such a university be funded? How would it deal with students and faculty who would prefer just to put in the hours and clock off at the end of the day? How can a university plan if its members have flexibility with their work portfolios? Who does the dull admin that has to be done but no one wants to do? And do the poor old admin staff get the opportunity to play as well? I don’t have the answers to these questions. I do think though that the principles I have outlined above are sound and can provide the basis for practical deliberations. What is needed is the collective will to work together on a new kind of university

Keith Kahn-Harris

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