Educated Optimism

Educational futures, digital cultures and social change

What are universities for?

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A few weeks ago I found myself on a sunny Wednesday afternoon sitting on a river bank in Uppsala, Sweden, with a group of students and staff from the CEMUS centre, discussing how they might creatively use a new space they have been offered in the centre of the city. Such an opportunity raises hundreds of questions – should this new space be a platform for student work, could it act as a resource for community knowledge building, can research be conducted here, who should govern it?

These questions, and myriad others, keep coming up everywhere I go recently. A couple of days later, I found myself talking to the head of strategy and innovation for a Stockholm municipality, who wants to attract universities to the region. The problem, she says, is finding institutions who want to think creatively about what they are for. A few weeks before that I was sitting with my colleague Dave Cliff, discussing how Bristol, my own university, might imagine a new campus and what precisely we should do there.

These are interesting conversations – but the reality is that we cannot begin to answer these questions unless we actually know what universities are for. And this doesn’t mean something as obvious as pointing out that they should be institutions for the public good rather than private positional benefit. Rather, it means getting into the work that they do and understanding it.

Having spent the last few years thinking about the relationship between educational institutions and social change, I’m increasingly convinced that the university does 5 key things which, when combined, make it a unique institution in helping society to think about, prepare for and create the future. These are:

  1. Its disciplinary/educational function – the system of specialisation within disciplines that allows students and scholars to develop the capacity to assess the value of new knowledge and use procedures to judge novelty. In a context of rapid change, this matters – how do we tell the difference between online controversy theory, new fads and robust data? We tell because we have specialised procedures to help us get as close as possible to reliable evidence within the traditions and ways of knowing of the disciplines.
  2. Its stewardship function – this is about the university keeping alive traditions, objects, knowledge that might not have an immediate application, and developing mechanisms to allow lost and old knowledge to be re-found and re-used should the time be right to rediscover this in future. Here, the university is the place that holds diverse knowledge because we never know what is going to be useful in the future, and because some knowledge and ideas when they emerge, emerge at the wrong time – it takes a change in conditions for us to understand how they can help us. This refers to everything from seedbanks to concepts locked in ancient languages.
  3. Its reflexivity function – this is about the development of critique and challenge, asking questions of the assumptions upon which claims about the world are made and justified, about examining the long-term patterns and changes that underpin the seemingly insane pace of superficial change. This function helps society to ask why and whether it wants to go in the direction it is going.
  4. Its modelling function – here the university helps to create abstractions, models, which allow us to examine the relationship between different forces in the world, to discern patterns from what seems like a too complex and messy reality; these are patterns that allow us to de-centre our world-view from our own perspective. Modelling underpins our capacity to creatively experiment with different possible futures without acting in and on the world.
  5. Its experimental function –here the university is an actor in and on the world. Inventing things, making things, but most importantly, reflecting on whether these inventions and experiments actually work – not just making, but reflecting and testing out whether these new possibilities make sense, have value, can be repeated.

Taken individually all of these elements are available in a number of social institutions. There are some places that provide expert training in specialist subjects; there are some that are clearly experimenting and making all the time; there are some that are providing ongoing critique. But the reality is that each of these orientations to the future suffers from being disconnected from the others. Reflexivity without experimentation is impoverished hand-waving from the sidelines. Modelling without reflexivity creates lousy abstractions that are misleading. Experimentation without stewardship lays waste to the world.

Only the university combines these different functions and puts them into productive tension with each other – so that reflexivity can allow us to question the procedures of our disciplinary knowledge, so that experimentation can test models and re-animate stewardship.

This, then, is what a university should be for – for combining these different orientations to and strategies for working in and on the future, together.

And yet… many of our universities fail to do this. We sequester students in subject silos for three-year degree courses in which they may never engage with a different orientation. We encourage staff to publish and research in familiar disciplinary areas at the same time as setting up barriers to collaboration.

The universities I might imagine, therefore, as we are sitting by the river bank or planning new campuses, draw on these strengths of universities we have already but envisage them becoming so much more and so much more committed to creating something new from the combination of these different resources. They are universities in which students are supported to reflect upon the different orientations that they use to face the future and to build knowledge, in which researchers and scholars are encouraged to put these orientations into productive dialogue, in which projects and possibilities emerge from the challenges that these orientations to the future pose to each other.

At the same time – we need to remember what the university cannot do. It can’t tell us who and what to love, it can’t tell us the world we want to build, it can’t tell us why our choices matter. It cannot provide meaning. The living of life is essential for this; the attempt to act in and on the world, with all its flaws, is necessary to test out and work with these ideas. Which is why universities cannot be seen as the places that will tell us our futures – they will walk alongside us, as friends – different but committed – challenging our ideas, sharing knowledge – but only we can decide what matters and where we want to go.

(this blog is a shortened version of a talk I gave for the UNIKE conference in June, 2016, Copenhagen)


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