Research Seminar: Professor Ron Barnett, Institute of Education
Imagining the University
The contemporary debate about universities and their future is hopelessly impoverished; 'impoverished' because it is constructed around very narrow construals of the university in the twenty-first century; 'hopelessly' because it is largely without hope. On the one hand, there are those who defend the contemporary university in its emerging form as 'the entrepreneurial university', at once a corporate, marketised and bureaucratic university. On the other hand, there are those who ring their hands at 'the crisis in the university', and largely limit themselves to a savage critique of the university and all too often look back to a mythical golden age.
Admittedly, not all voices are pessimistic. Two more optimistic stances are apparent. Those of a philosophical persuasion opt for a stratospheric and meta-idea of the university as a kind of ultra debating society. This idea has no content, instead concerning itself with the communicative processes that mark a 'university'. Philosophers and theorists often look to the university to sustain itself as a forum for critical dialogue ('a university without conditions' or 'a university of dissensus'), that is willing even to question what it is to be a university. An alternative though still more practical stance is provided by those of a more sociological and, indeed, social persuasion who look to the university to enhance the 'civic society' through forms of civic engagement or to advance the democratic society (by, for example, exploiting the possibilities of the internet age, through the development of a 'creative commons') and so a new kind of 'civic university' is envisaged.
Despite these more positive voices, the contemporary debate over what it is to be a university is unduly limited. Most of all, it is limited imaginatively. The range of imagined options is narrow. The imagination has not been given anything approaching a wide scope. If we are seriously to develop a wide range of ideas of the university that is adequate to the challenges of the modern world, the imagination itself needs to be freed. It needs even to become utopian in character.
There are three issues here. Firstly, what range of ideas of the university might be imagined? Secondly, how might those ideas be evaluated? Perhaps some are non-feasible; perhaps others are malign ideas; and yet others may help towards a better world, and so constitute feasible utopias of the university. Thirdly, the nature of the imagination itself: just how might it be brought into play? How can it be fully effective? Are there different kinds of imaginative conceptions? Perhaps some should be repudiated while others encouraged, if the university is fully to realise its potential. There is, therefore, an openness, an anarchy, and even a poetry that attaches to the imagination; but there are also limitations, as it struggles to anchor itself in the real world and attach itself to some values that in turn might be connected with real possibilities for action and policy.
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