Monday, 19 November 2012

Is "What is the Future of the University?" the wrong question?

Over-concern for one's own future is often an invitation to those who present themselves as the 'strong man/women' ready to save the country/institution/etc. As Hayek and others warned us a long time ago, these people are dangerous. Thinking of others needs to come before self-interest. Universities are currently rather over-concerned about their future, preferring to worry about that than the terrible burden that is to be carried by their students.

There's been an interesting video posted by the University Alliance ( which outlines four possible ways in which Universities might develop:

The basic comparison is between Uni-public, Uni-market, Uni-divide and Uni-wifi. These are situated against two axes drawn up according to whether the economy grows or stagnates (one axis) and on the other axis against whether society is individualistic or collaborative. Clever. But...

All four scenarios are predicated on the separation between economy (as we understand it) and education (as we understand it). As I have argued previously, I believe that economy and education are re-aligning themselves in ways which question our fundamental assumptions about both. Education is economy, education is industry, education is society, and so on. That raises the question "what is economy?" as much as it raises the question "what is education?"

In terms of the categories of collaboration versus individualism, there are similar ontological problems. What is collaboration? That is a question the game theorists struggle over. And indeed, certainly in a world where individuals do not conform to a rational behaviour model, the question of collaboration is deeply problematic - as indeed is the question of individualism. Attachments, families, love, relationships, and primeval instincts underpin the economic and social theories we currently have. I believe current developments in education are revealing these assumptions to be problematic.

But in the end, I think it is a mistake to try and analyse "where Universities are going". It is for us to decide "where do we want Universities to go?". The question is political. But to decide what we want out of education is much more difficult than implementing institutional policies. Who is "we"? It requires a national and global conversation about the relationship between civilised society and the needs of each human being for a meaningful life. It is in facilitating that conversation that I believe technology is important, not in realising a particular idealised trajectory of universities.

At the heart of the debate about what we want from Univerisites is, I believe, the togetherness of humanity. Richard Hall drew attention to a similar theme a few days ago (see The social and political imperative lies at the heart of our current debates about education. But the questions are very difficult. We will need new means of organising our togetherness if we are to address them.

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