The Idea of the University

Contemporary Perspectives

by Ronald Barnett (Volume editor) Michael Adrian Peters (Volume editor)
Textbook X, 624 Pages
Series: Global Studies in Education, Volume 18


The Idea of the University: Contemporary Perspectives, Volume 2 is a companion to The Idea of the University: A Reader, Volume 1, which presents readings from the major texts on the idea of the university over the last two hundred years. This volume consists of essays from the leading contemporary scholars of the university across the world. The essays examine ideas of the university that lie tacitly in its national and global framing, and offer creative ideas in taking the university forward, both on a regional and on a world-wide basis. Specific lines of inquiry include those of citizenship, cosmopolitanism, wisdom, ecology and freedom.
The thirty chapters in this volume have been invitingly grouped to offer intriguing ways into the material, which in turn opens the way to very large conceptual and theoretical issues. In an era of marketization, can universities attend to any global responsibilities? Might regionalism—in Europe, in South America, in Africa—prompt new ideas of the university? What understandings of knowledge are feasible in a digital age? Amid local, national, regional and worldly callings, how might citizenship be construed?
In a final section, a space opens for more speculative inquiries as to the conceptual possibilities ahead: Just what ideas of the university might feasibly be entertained for the twenty-first century? Might it be envisaged that the university has both responsibilities and possibilities in playing a part in bringing about a better world? Those concluding chapters in The Idea of the University: Contemporary Perspectives respond in original ways and all in an optimistic fashion.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Overcoming Pessimism, Forging Possibilities (Ronald Barnett / Michael A. Peters)
  • Opening paths
  • Patterns of possibilities
  • This volume—and axes of the university
  • Narrowing the challenge
  • Towards criteria of adequacy
  • References
  • Part One: Addressing Neoliberalism
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: University under Attack?: Politics, Contestation and Agency beyond the ‘Neoliberal University’ (Jana Bacevic)
  • Introduction: university under attack?
  • Neoliberalism from nowhere?
  • We were never an ivory tower?
  • University outside itself? The Salaita Case
  • Conclusions: the university—an assemblage of political (f)actors?
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Two: Defending Higher Education in the Age of Barbarism (Henry A. Giroux)
  • Higher Education and the Crisis of Legitimacy
  • Dreaming the Impossible
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Three: Academic Capitalism: Reflections on Higher Education in the United States and European Union (Sheila Slaughter / Brendan Cantwell)
  • Introduction and theoretical considerations
  • A note on theory and concepts
  • Analysis and comparison of EU and U.S. moves toward the market
  • Intermediating organizations
  • Narratives, discourses and social technologies
  • Interstitial organizations
  • Expanded managerial capacity
  • New circuits of knowledge and new funding streams
  • Implications and conclusion
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Four: Rethinking the Entrepreneurial University for the 21st Century (Wesley Shumar / Sarah Robinson)
  • Introduction
  • Contesting the concept of entrepreneurship
  • The purpose of education—bildung?
  • Post World War II—from elitism to massification
  • Marketization and the growth of a knowledge economy
  • The development of the entrepreneurial university
  • Entrepreneurship education
  • Summing up
  • Acknowledgment
  • Note
  • References
  • Part Two: The Global University
  • Introduction
  • References
  • Chapter Five: The International University: Models and Muddles (Jane Knight)
  • Introduction
  • Internationalization—A Complex and Changing Process
  • Internationalization—A Working Definition
  • Rationales Driving Internationalization
  • Internationalization: ‘At Home’ and ‘Cross-Border’
  • At Home—Campus-Based Internationalization
  • Cross-Border Education
  • International University—Three Models or Approaches
  • Three Models of International Universities
  • Classic Model
  • Satellite Model
  • Internationally Co-founded/Co-developed Model
  • Benefits, Risks and Unintended Consequences
  • Student Mobility; The Brain Drain—Gain-Train
  • Quality, Accreditation and Credential Recognition
  • Double and Joint Degrees—Twice the Benefit or Double Counting?
  • Intercultural Competence for Academic Staff and Students
  • Commodification and Commercialization— For-Profit Internationalization
  • Cultural Diversity or Homogenization?
  • Branding and Competition—World Rankings
  • Last Words—Focus on Values
  • References
  • Chapter Six: The Anglo-American University: Support Structure for the 1 per cent (Simon Marginson)
  • Introduction
  • The 1960s and the heyday of merit
  • Equality of opportunity and human capital theory
  • Social and economic inequality after 1980
  • Social and educational inequality after 1980
  • Attenuated social mobility
  • Conclusions: The university and Anglo-American inequality
  • References
  • Chapter Seven: Freedom and Control in the Constrained Modern University (Francine Rochford)
  • Introduction
  • The university ideal
  • The university in the knowledge economy
  • Academic freedom in uncontested terrain
  • Post-political public engagement
  • Mission and value statements
  • Articulating the meaning of the university
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Eight: Displaced towards a Networked University (Nicolas Standaert)
  • Introduction
  • First Metaphor: Pyramid, Pillar and Web—Three Forms of Academic Practice
  • Pyramid
  • Pillar
  • Web
  • Second Metaphor: Displacements between Spaces
  • Place, space and in-between
  • The networked university as a space
  • Mental displacements
  • Physical displacements
  • Conclusion: Open Space
  • References
  • Part Three: European Ideas
  • Introduction
  • References
  • Chapter Nine: The University and the State in Europe: The Uncertain Future of the Traditional Social Contract (Marek Kwiek)
  • Introduction
  • The Modern University and the Welfare State
  • The Modern University and the Modern Nation-State
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Ten: Forum Shifting and Shape Making in Higher Education Services (Susan l. Robertson / Joanna Tidy / Janja Komljenovic)
  • Introduction
  • ‘First wave’ Post-GATS Trade Agreements
  • Creating a New Forum—the EC’s Directive on Services 2006
  • Cyprus—provision of education services
  • Creating New Forums and Mechanisms
  • Enter a ‘Second Wave’ of Spatial Strategies
  • TPP
  • TTIP
  • TISA
  • A New Geometry of Education and the Loss of Policy Space?
  • Concluding Thoughts
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Eleven: The European University: Heartland to Periphery and Even Back Again? (Peter Scott)
  • Introduction
  • Fading domination
  • Revival and recovery
  • Beginnings
  • A common architecture
  • Extending Bologna
  • European Higher Education Area
  • The EHEA has had several functions:
  • On the defensive?
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Twelve: The Nordic Idea of University (Jussi Välimaa)
  • Introduction
  • Similarities in Nordic welfare societies
  • Similarities and differences among Nordic systems of higher education
  • Equality and equal educational opportunities
  • On the definitions of universities in Nordic countries
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Norway
  • Sweden
  • Conclusions and discussion on the dimensions of a Nordic idea of university
  • References
  • Websites visited 30.11.2015
  • Chapter Thirteen: European Universities: Another Somewhat Lamenting— Yet Basically Hopeful—Account (Thorsten Nybom)
  • Introduction
  • Historical Mistakes: The Disintegration of the European Higher Education System(s) 1965–1985
  • The Confluence of Internal and External Forces of Change since 1995
  • Concluding Remarks and a Few Very Modest Proposals
  • Notes
  • Part Four: Regional Perspectives
  • Introduction
  • Chapter Fourteen: The Idea of the University in the Evolving Higher Education Landscape in Africa (N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba)
  • Introduction
  • Historical Background of Higher Education and Universities in Africa
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Fifteen: The Latin American University: Past, Present and Future (Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela / Andrés Bernasconi)
  • Introduction
  • Building an identity of LA universities: ideologies and historical processes
  • The colonial period: initial contests to gain autonomy
  • First decades of the twentieth century: the emergence of student movements
  • The 1980s and 1990s: a convulsed period
  • Massification
  • Dictatorship regimes
  • Financial crisis and greater regulation
  • Processes of globalization
  • The era of the marketized university and its discontents
  • The Chilean students’ movement
  • The rejection of rankings and the underlying world-class university model
  • In search of the Latin-American University: looking at the past to project a future
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Sixteen: Towards an African University in Becoming: Positive Risk, Hope and Imagination (Yusef Waghid / Nuraan Davids)
  • Introduction
  • The university at risk
  • The African university at risk
  • The South African university at risk: (in)equality, access and exclusion
  • Towards positive risk: critique, hope and imagination
  • Transformation as actualized in risk
  • Towards a conclusion
  • References
  • Part Five: Knowledge and Research
  • Introduction
  • References
  • Chapter Seventeen: Citizenship and the University: The Consequences of Globalization (Gerard Delanty)
  • Social Theory and the University in Modernity
  • Radical Social Theory and the University
  • The University in Contemporary Social Theory and Sociology
  • The liberal critique
  • The postmodern thesis
  • The reflexivity thesis
  • The globalization thesis
  • The McDonaldization thesis
  • The Uses of the University: The University in the Knowledge Society
  • Conclusion: Possibilities for Citizenship
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Eighteen: Universities and the Knowledge Society Revisited (Alberto Amaral)
  • Introduction
  • The Emergence of the Knowledge Society
  • Recent Changes
  • Market Regulation and New Public Management
  • Changes in Governance
  • Students as Consumers or Clients and Academics as Proletarians
  • Competition, Rankings and Excellence Initiatives
  • Disruptive New Technologies
  • What Lies in the Future?
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Nineteen: Parting Ways: Analogue People in a Digital University (Robert Hassan)
  • Introduction
  • Being analogue
  • The digital universe
  • The digital university (in network time)
  • Some conclusions
  • References
  • Part Six: Teaching and Students
  • Introduction
  • Chapter Twenty: Citizens of the World (Martha C. Nussbaum)
  • The Idea of World Citizenship in Greek and Roman Antiquity
  • World Citizenship in Contemporary Education
  • Notes
  • Chapter Twenty-One: Trust in the University (Paul Gibbs)
  • Introduction
  • The market context
  • Trust in the university
  • Competence of trust
  • Empathetic trust
  • Public trust in higher education
  • Academic offering and the student experience
  • Self-trusting
  • Professionalism
  • Academic freedom
  • Concluding remarks—trust as the foundation of higher education
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Two: The University as a Public Pedagogic Form (Jan Masschelein / Maarten Simons)
  • Part One
  • Employability and excellence
  • Acceleration
  • Academic bubbles
  • Part Two
  • Collective experiments
  • Careful vigilance
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Three: Universities as Civic Spaces: In the Footsteps of Arendt and Jaspers (Jon Nixon)
  • The spaces in between
  • Enlarged mentality
  • Boundless communication
  • Care for the world
  • Remaking the polity
  • Truly discursive
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part Seven: Possibilities
  • Introduction
  • Chapter Twenty-Four: The Idea(l) of a Paraversity (Gary Rolfe)
  • Introduction
  • The ruined university
  • Towards the Paraversity
  • The university without discipline(s)
  • The fourth mission
  • Be good
  • Be collegiate
  • Be radical
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Five: The Platform University: The Destruction and Resurrection of Universities in the Auto-Industrial Age (Peter Murphy)
  • From exhilaration to enervation
  • Is university worth the money?
  • Tectonic structural change
  • The auto-industrial future
  • The platform university
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Six: The Fully-Functioning University (Tom Bourner)
  • Introduction
  • Background and approach
  • Stages in the development of the Western university
  • Stage 1: The medieval university
  • Stage 2: The early modern university: a university for scholars and gentlemen
  • Stage 3: The Humboldtian university
  • Discussion and conclusions
  • The tripartite mission in the 21st century
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Seven: Academic Citizenship beyond the Campus: A Call for the Placeful University (Rikke Toft Nørgård / Søren Smedegaard Ernst Bengtsen)
  • Introduction: beyond the campus
  • Space, spatiality and place
  • Becoming a place
  • Being in education
  • Places for dwelling
  • Integrating academic citizenship
  • The university beyond the campus
  • Conclusion: academic citizenship in placeful universities
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Eight: Do We Need an Academic Revolution to Create a Wiser World? (Nicholas Maxwell)
  • Introduction
  • Our Grave Global Problems
  • The Role of Universities
  • From Knowledge to Wisdom
  • From Knowledge-Inquiry to Wisdom-Inquiry
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Nine: Renewing the Idea of the University: The Cosmopolitan and Postcolonial Projects (Michael A. Peters)
  • Introduction
  • The Cosmopolitan University
  • Moral Cosmopolitanism
  • Political Cosmopolitanism
  • Economic Cosmopolitanism
  • Comparing the Cosmopolitanisms
  • The Postcolonial University
  • The Māori Example: Māori case
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Thirty: The Ecological University—A University Whose Time Has Come (Ronald Barnett)
  • Introduction
  • Beyond sustainability
  • The university and its seven ecosystems
  • Three ecological planes
  • The university—just an assemblage?
  • Just networked?
  • Becoming ecological
  • The coming of the ecological university
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Contributor Biographies
  • Subject Index
  • Name Index
  • Series index

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This volume forms part of a two-volume project on the idea of the university, of which Michael Peters and I conceived some time ago. (The parallel volume is a reader of extracts taken from historically important texts within the 200-year long canon on the very idea of the university.) Pulling off such a complex project has taken us longer than we originally anticipated and our acknowledgements must, in the first place, go towards our contributors, who have patiently awaited sight of their offerings.

We also gratefully acknowledge permissions to republish or rework earlier material as follows:

Gerard Delanty’s chapter ‘Citizenship and the University: The Consequences of Globalization’ was previously published as Chapter 30 in The SAGE Handbook of Sociology (2005), C. Calhoun, C. Rojek, & B. S. Turner (Eds.)

Rikke Toft Nørgard and Søren Smedegaard Ernst Bengsten’s chapter ‘Academic Citizenship beyond the Campus: A Call for the Placeful University’ was previously published in 2016 in Higher Education Research & Development 35(1), 6–14. Taylor & Francis. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2015.1131669 ← ix | x →

Martha C. Nussbaum’s chapter ‘Citizens of the World’ was previously published in 1997 in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Chapter Two, Citizens of the World) (pp. 50–84). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. This chapter is an abridged version of the original chapter.

We also record our appreciation of the way in which the staff at Peter Lang—especially Sara McBride and Sara Bode—have shown much fortitude in persisting with this project, despite its occasional turbulent moments.

Lastly, but by no means least, Michael Peters and I warmly applaud the never-flagging and patient energies of our research assistant, Richard Heraud, who has helped considerably in keeping this particular show on the road in deftly engaging with the publishers, the contributors and, indeed, us.

Ronald Barnett

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Overcoming Pessimism, Forging Possibilities


Opening paths

This volume accompanies a separate volume consisting of readings from the 200-year long tradition of writings on the idea of the university. That lineage began in the writings of German philosophers at the end of the eighteenth century, was developed at the hands of English writers in the mid-nineteenth century, and was continued well into the twentieth century by authors from American, European and other traditions. Those writings have come to constitute a great tradition, increasingly cosmopolitan, with many books among that literature bearing the title ‘The Idea of the University’ or something very similar. So we find, for example, ‘The Idea of a University’ (Newman, 1976/1848), ‘The Idea of the University’ (Jaspers, 1960/1946), ‘The Concept of a University’ (Minogue, 1973), ‘The Ideal of the University’ (Wolff, 1997) and even ‘The Idea of Higher Education’ (Barnett, 1990). Recently, however, and alongside its hesitant continuation, that line of work has splintered, opening into perhaps four paths.

A first path opened from the middle of the twentieth century, consisting largely of an illumination of ways in which the university was unfolding. Works such as ‘The Uses of the University’ (by Kerr, 1995/1963) which offered us the concept of the ‘multiversity’, ‘Creating Entrepreneurial Universities’ (by Burton Clark, 1998) which bequeathed to us the idea of ‘the entrepreneurial university’ and ‘Universities ← 1 | 2 → in the Marketplace’ (by Bok, 2003) which emphasised the ways in which the university was becoming attuned to the market, were insightful commentaries on the forms that the university was actually assuming. These were ideas of the university rooted in the university as a real institution in society.

We may note that there is here an axis opening, the poles of which are the university as idea and the university as institution. Writings at each of the poles have an interest in the idea of the university but that interest assumes a different balance at each of the poles. In the great tradition, from Kant and Newman onwards, we see an emphasis on the idea of the university as such. It was a distinctly conceptual approach. The very idea of the university captured the attention of the writers in this genre. Just what was it to be a university? To offer a space of reason? To bring forward the intellectual enlargement of the mind? At the other pole of this axis, we find an interest in the university as an institution, in the ways in which it was developing, and an effort to conceptualise the university on the basis of the new forms that the university as an institution was taking on. These latter writers, as it were, became—we might say—practical philosophers, intent on giving us new concepts, ideas and insights into the university but rooted in their understandings of the changes befalling the university qua institution. Through their writings, too, our concepts for understanding the university have been broadened, such that today we are unwittingly drawn into associating the university with ideas of its fragmented nature of a ‘multiversity’, of its entrepreneurial character and so moving in different directions, and of it having its very being in and open to the ‘marketplace’.

A second path that has opened here over the last half century has taken the form of a critique of the contemporary nature of the university. Two such books stand out, The Postmodern Condition by Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) and The University in Ruins by Bill Readings (1997). Strictly speaking, the former book is not actually about the university. It offers a commentary on the character of knowledge in the (then) contemporary world and it connects directly with the idea of the university. Explicitly, for 200 years or so, the university has been understood as an institutional space for systematic inquiry. However, in Lyotard’s view, the concepts associated with this understanding of the university—of knowledge, truth, reason and so forth—have to be understood as constituting a grand narrative that warrants only ‘incredulity’. This analysis—of the dissolution of the foundations of large ideas—pointed to knowledge and the university in the postmodern condition. Accordingly, the university had lost its legitimacy. If a new legitimation was possible, it could lie only in the idea of ‘performativity’, in which the test of knowledge could no longer lay in its truthfulness but rather as an answer to the question ‘what use does it have’? (Lyotard, 1984, 51).

Readings, inspired by Lyotard, arrived at a similar endpoint. In his view, whereas the university had found its legitimation first in an inquiry for knowledge ← 2 | 3 → and truth and then subsequently in sustaining and developing a nation’s culture, now the university had been reduced to falling back on a vacuous notion such as ‘excellence’, an empty signifier appropriated by neoliberals that quickly became essential to the prevailing mission statement for universities the world over. And, today, we might add the term ‘world-class’ here, the construction of ‘the world-class university’ as surely exhibiting the same emptiness as ‘the university of excellence’. (We must return to this point about the emptiness of some ideas of the university.) For Readings, the university was ‘in ruins’—a Romantic trope based on a kind of nostalgia—and the only possible foundation was that of understanding and realising the university as a place of, and a space for, ‘dissensus’.

In short, these two analyses were remarkably alike in suggesting that the conceptual foundations of the university had crumbled and, in the process, any large story that had hitherto legitimised the university had also dissipated. Only weak and limited narratives were available through which the university could find any kind of serious justification. They were alike also in their analysis of the corruption of the form of the university by neoliberal capitalism—its structure and discourse—that became indistinguishable from any other corporation.

En passant, we may notice that other major contemporary figures who had come at the university through philosophical eyes had come to not-dissimilar positions. In their quite different ways, Alistair MacIntyre, Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas had all noted that the university was in difficulty. MacIntyre (1985, 2011) argued that the university as a set of practices was being undermined by the university as an organisation and its characteristic inner virtues were being abandoned with the result that no longer could important questions be seriously pursued. Derrida (1992) wanted to reunite the university with a sense of its having ‘responsibility’ in the world but could only suggest that one could go forward and upward one step at a time, without any indication as to where those steps might lead. Habermas (1987) has been much more optimistic, seeing in the university resources of dialogical reason, which might foster societal learning processes.

Across all such recent philosophical accounts, there is little of substance in relation to the university’s possibilities in the world. At best, we are offered—as we might term it—a debating society account of the university (Barnett, 2016). If disputes cannot be settled in any sure way, then at least the university can come to provide a place of dispute and argument and so help society to understand what collective learning might look like at its best. Inheritors of this position today offer accounts, for example, of the way in which internal activities of the university enjoy a particularly ‘public’ aspect, pointing to the collective exchange of views and the dialogic exposition of readings of the world (Masschelein and Simons, 2012).

A third position in understanding the idea of the university at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century is implicit in the ← 3 | 4 → writings of critical sociologists. Concepts such as ‘commodification’ (Naidoo and Jamieson, 2005), ‘academic capitalism’ (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004), universities ‘for hire’ (Reid, 1996), the ‘corporate university’ (Giroux and Myrsiades, 2001), and ‘knowledge capitalism’ (Peters & Besley, 2006) are examples of thick concepts, as the moral philosopher Bernard Williams puts it (Williams, 2006). They tell us something about the world—here, that the university’s activities can be itemised and put into the knowledge economy to generate income, that academics themselves come to value their own activities in this way, that those activities are available at a cost to those who can purchase them, and that universities come to take on the character of a business that claims the allegiance of its employees—but these terms also secrete a value element. These terms are not just ‘theory-laden’ but actually cast the university in a poor light. The implication of such a vocabulary—which is frequently associated with a wider vocabulary of ‘neoliberalism’, ‘profit’, institutional ‘competition’ and the ‘student-as-customer’—is that the university has fallen away from its true path. This sociology of higher education amounts, therefore, to an intensive and strong critique of the nature of the modern university as it has undergone a process of neoliberal globalisation.

There is, though, often to be found a third element in this sociological analysis, alongside its analyses and its value element. This is that these descriptions of the university are frequently associated with an unremitting bleakness. Not unusually, these accounts provide their analyses and, as stated, secrete their negative value elements and then conclude. The reader is often left with a of insights that is at once powerful and dismal. Its power derives from the topic in question—the student experience, the pedagogical relationship, the character of research (now termed ‘knowledge production’), relationships with industry, the experience of international students or whatever it may be—being placed in a context of inescapable global forces at work. In this genre, there is, it appears, a tsunami composed of neoliberalism, performance management, the digital revolution, and cognitive capitalism. Its dismal character derives from a sense that nothing can contend against this tsunami. Accordingly, the fate of the university—on this perspective—is sealed. It has simply to accept its place as a cognitive and practical enterprise in the service of the knowledge economy.

We may note that this pessimism has its own virtues, not least in that it holds the university to account against its self-understandings and its public persona. The pessimism reminds its readers of the long-heralded associations of the university with openness, disinterestedness, equity, neutrality and academic freedom, and it finds the university wanting. The power of this pessimistic critique lies in its forensic excavations of the university as a hallowed and special space in the world. However, ultimately, this critique runs the risk of leaving things as they are, and even being judged on occasions to constitute ‘an enemy of hope’ (Tallis, 1999). ← 4 | 5 →

A fourth—and the last—path into which the philosophy of higher education has opened is, in contrast, constructive in that it seeks to open visions as to ways in which the university could plausibly develop in the twenty-first century. In this genre, we find, for example, Nicolas Maxwell (1987), who has been advancing for 40 years the idea of a university of wisdom, Jon Nixon (2008, 2011) and the idea of the virtuous and public university, Michael Peters with his invigoration of the open university (Peters and Britez, 2008; Peters, Liu, & Ondercin, 2012) and Ronald Barnett (2011, 2013) and his idea of the ecological university. Each of these philosophers of higher education couples together observations and a critique of the current state of affairs but none is content to rest there. To the contrary, each advances a positive idea of the university. What is more, each such idea is proposed as a feasible project: even given the global forces at work, each idea—so it is at least implied—could be realised. None is fanciful.

Patterns of possibilities

There are, then, at least four directions in which work on the idea of the university has recently been going. To re-present our preceding analysis, they are:

Of course, this depiction of four paths is unduly neat. Approaches can be seen that criss-cross these paths. For example, the digital revolution has given rise to multiple trajectories of thinking. One trajectory, for example, offers a flight that underwrites individualised learning. This is a view that is (a) critical of the university—which it depicts as moribund in depending still on pedagogical relationships and technologies of yesteryear—and (b) is endorsing of the way the communications technologies are moving, and (c) purportedly is offering a brave new world for universities to ← 5 | 6 → embrace, but which is (d) actually serving the interests of the corporate world in its attempts to marketise learning, not least through the presence of for-profit universities built around individuals’ online learning (Bradwell, 2009). Another quite different view sees here the possibilities for a ‘socialist’ learning, with both the material being freely available and the learning processes being ‘open’ and dialogical (Peters, Gietzen and Ondercin, 2012). These two sets of perceptions both see quite different possibilities in the ‘same’ situation and criss-cross the four paths—of the contemporary idea of the university—just identified.

This volume—and axes of the university

The structure of this volume works with the grain of these considerations. Part I contains critiques of neoliberalism, part II places the university in its global context, parts III and IV offer insights into the university in its regional and global contexts, parts V and VI set develop ideas of the university that focus in turn on its research and its teaching functions, and the final part turns to see if imaginative ideas of the university might be available which might help to carry the university forward and provide principles for its reconstruction. This volume, therefore, is testimony to the multiple avenues along which the idea of the university is currently being taken.

Broadly speaking, the contributions here tread the third and fourth paths of the contemporary idea of the university just identified here, being ‘sociological critiques of the state into which the university has fallen’ (especially in the context of markets) and offering ‘constructive efforts to discern feasible possibilities … in the contemporary era’. However, many of the offerings straddle these two camps, being both critical and constructive. Inevitably, too, some authors develop their analyses somewhat pessimistically, sensing that the contemporary forces at work are so powerful as to leave little room for manoeuvre such that only subversive activities are possible while others are more optimistic, sensing that there are at least opening spaces for new possibilities for the university; possibilities that do justice anew to such themes as social justice, freedom, wisdom and the idea of a public. Perhaps it might be observed, too, that the sociological mind tends to open itself to rather more pessimistic readings of the situation, while the philosophical mind—on the evidence here—tends to open itself to more optimistic readings. At least, that could be a matter for further reflection on another occasion.

Amid this conceptual and theoretical complexity, can anything be said with any assurance? That it cannot—we may observe—is precisely one of the planks of the stance of the second group of thinkers earlier identified, that of philosophers ← 6 | 7 → of the late twentieth century. It even led, we noted, to a situation in which Derrida (1992) rightly asked the question as to where lay the ‘responsibility’ of the university but then was unable to furnish us with a substantive answer. And that was understandable, for to have done so, to have come forward with a substantive idea of the responsibility of the university would have been implicitly to have identified firm foundations underpinning the university when just such foundations had been ruled as outré from the outset (of that deconstructionalist philosophy).

But yet some broad observations may be made of this situation. To begin with, we can observe that understandings of the idea of the university are rent with particular kinds of division. We can go even further than that for ideas of the university may be interrogated as to their position on a number of axes. These axes include the following:

(i) The university as institution—the university as idea: We encountered this axis earlier and it speaks for itself. Ideas of the university characteristically have their location in a conceptual space or are intimately connected with a sense of the university as a real institution in the world. Each approach has its strength and weakness. Ideas of the university that are seriously conceptual—perhaps developed say around the concept of reason, or the concept of academic freedom, or the concept of social justice—run up against the charge that they are ‘not living in the real world’. They fail to observe the ways in which reason is being distorted, or that in some countries academics are being incarcerated or worse for speaking out or that claims for free ‘public’ higher education may act regressively upon the poor who end up subsidising the middle classes.

In contrast, ideas of the university that are based much more on the university as a real social institution underplay the intricacies that attach to concepts. Just what kind of reason might be associated with the university? Is it particular forms of knowledge or rather particular knowledge processes, or is it rather the university as a space in which reason might flourish? But what might that mean? Is there a significant difference between the university as a space of reason and the university as a space of reasoning? (cf. Bakhurst, 2011) On the one hand, those who favour a conceptual approach produce ideas of the university that are ontologically thin; on the other hand, those whose ideas of the university spring from an interest in the university as a social institution slide over fundamental issues, not merely of conceptual analysis but of matters that lie beneath concepts. Significant questions and, indeed, practical implications that arise from conceptual distinctions are neglected. ← 7 | 8 →

(ii) Pessimism and optimism: Ideas of the university may be given a kind of pessimism—or optimism—quotient. Pessimism and optimism, however, work somewhat differently here. Pessimism here denotes ideas of the university that spring from doleful readings of the situation in which universities find themselves. Depictions of the university as caught in webs of neoliberalism, competitive markets, judgemental audit regimes that subtly steer universities in particular directions, and processes in which universities take on the mantle of corporate organisations give rise all too easily to pessimism. Ideas of the university ‘in crisis’ (Moberly, 1949; Scott, 1984; Reeves, 1988) or ‘in ruins’ (Readings, 1997) or, less prosaically, as systematically falling short of their potential can all too easily generate a sense (even if not intended by their authors) that here, there is no alternative.

Optimism, however, shows itself not in a sense that the university will march on to happier times but rather a sense that a fuller realisation of the university is at least plausible. It is not that the university will find itself in a space in which it finds a new authenticity but that it is plausible to believe that it could do so. And theoretical readings may be advanced to back up such a more optimistic scenario. Spaces may be detected that are opening anew, or it might be possible to mount subversive forms of positive resistance, or entirely new ideas might be created that at once do justice to the world order and yet also reinvigorate earlier understandings of the university.

Another way of understanding this axis is via the ideas of critique and construction. For example, some deploy the concept of commodification as a powerful conceptual tool not just in understanding the contemporary university but also in critiquing it, especially under market conditions. Others, however, still argue a positive case for the university and do so with constructive and imaginative concepts. For example, Jan Parker (2005) has offered the idea of the theatrical university. This is certainly—to doff our caps to another concept in the armoury of critique—a performative university, but one in which the positive resources in the idea of performance are played up. Here, the university is envisaged as an institution with dramatic potential, capable of generating mystery, awe and wonder.

(iii) Internalist–externalist conceptions: A third axis on which ideas of the university are situated is that of internalist and externalist conceptions. Internalist conceptions are those that play up the internal goods or virtues of the university; externalist conceptions are those that are much ← 8 | 9 → more interested in the role of the university towards the wider society—or indeed, the wider world. Unsurprisingly, mainstream philosophers in the great tradition have tended to focus on internal construals of the idea of the university, variously seeing the university as a space of reason, or of inquiry, or of truthfulness, or as possessing certain kinds of inner virtue.

On the other hand, more recent voices of a philosophical orientation have tended to place the university much more in the context of the external world, and have sought to depict its potential thereto. Here, to return to earlier examples, we see Maxwell’s idea of wisdom, whereby the university focuses on ‘what is of value’ in the world; Barnett’s idea of the ecological university, which precisely picks up on the university’s inevitable connections with various ecosystems in the world; and Peters’ conception of the open university, which speaks to the possibilities of publicly open access and the ensuing ‘socialist knowledge’. In parallel, contemporary efforts of social theorists to articulate new conceptions of the public university (Marginson, 2007) and the engaged university (Watson et al., 2012) are again explicitly driven by an interest in identifying the external benefits that the university offers.

(iv) Superficiality and depth: A fourth axis on which ideas of the university can be said to be placed has at its ends ‘superficiality’ and ‘depth’. Among superficial ideas of the university, we find, as intimated, the university of ‘excellence’ and ‘the world-class university’. These terms are empty signifiers, being devoid of content and yet they are in ubiquitous use (to be found in the websites of universities all over the world).

Among ideas of the university that have depth, and perhaps surprisingly, we may alight on the idea of ‘the entrepreneurial university’, if only to help in making the point. Much maligned and not without reason, this idea has depth for it gains its traction through resting on foundations of global forces at work, to which the entrepreneurial university is but a response. It was also given depth in being first articulated by Burton Clark (1998) on the basis both of serious cross-national empirical research and through his detailed theoretical exposition as to the institutional conditions of such a university.

The entrepreneurial university has added depth in that it sees itself as having its place in a world beset by globalisation, a worldly knowledge economy and the emergence of cognitive capitalism. The entrepreneurial university considers that its survival is dependent on its making its living by and for itself in such a turbulent world. It cannot be still. Its ← 9 | 10 → well-being depends on its wherewithal to propel itself forward through its own efforts. Accordingly, ‘the entrepreneurial university’ is nothing other than a term of art of the kind of university that is alleged to be necessary, given the depth and power of the forces that bestride it.

Narrowing the challenge

Contemporary ideas of the university may, then, be plotted along four axes: (i) the university as institution/the university as concept; (ii) pessimistic and optimistic conceptions of the university; (iii) internalist and externalist conceptions of the university; and (iv) ideas of the university that are superficial and those that have depth. Of course, this schema by no means exhausts the planes on which the idea of the university may be placed. Others would include geographical range (is an idea rather parochial or does it have global reach?), conceptual scope (does it spring from or has a sensitivity to particulars of the university and so views the university ‘close-up’—interested, say, in the personal ‘subjectivities’ of its staff—or is it oriented towards large and even universal concepts, perhaps of freedom, of reason, of well-being, of justice or even of knowledge?), and its temporal character (is it concerned with contemporary matters or is it sensitive to the long historical sweep of the university or even to its potential future character?).

Accordingly, ideas of the university may then be interrogated with a multitude of conceptual and theoretical devices. An implication of this consideration is that the idea of the university is liable to shoot out in a myriad of directions. It might even be said that the idea of the university has before it an infinite ‘lines of flight’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2007). The metaphor is powerful. It conveys a sense of trajectories, some ascending higher than others (perhaps reaching towards transcendent visions of the university as potentially lying in an ethereal space), some moving rapidly but perhaps rather lacking in direction (perhaps located in the superhighway of the Internet), and some motivated even by past traditions and so could be said to be retreating to earlier sentiments.

However, the metaphor of ‘lines of flight’ is surely too neat in the present context. As stated, the situation is at least of lines of flight that criss-cross and that even contest against each other (rather like an aerial dogfight). Some endorse contemporary paths of travel, others critique them; some are imaginative and constructive while others rest their laurels on their forensic and even critical commentaries; and some are addressed to market situations while others purport to be universal in character. Perhaps more liquid metaphors are called for. The university today is set in swirling and turbulent waters, and is pushed this way and that by severe underlying currents of massive force. Accordingly, so it might be felt, rather ← 10 | 11 → than taking on a rhizomatic form—with its rather static connotations—the university of the twenty-first century is taking on squid-like features. After all, this is an institution able to move quickly if need be, having the facility to range widely and possessing a long and even global reach, and to insert itself into the tiniest crevices, and yet possessing a hard shell.

Towards criteria of adequacy

Is this, then, the situation that confronts us here? That we can say little of substance about the university in the twenty-first century, with our only recourse being that of searching for metaphors that might just begin to do justice to a highly fluid setting, in which ideas of the university go hither and thither? Surely, we can do better than that.

We suggest that ideas of the university can be evaluated. After all, some ideas are going to bear more weight than others; and some are going to possess an ideological nature, acting as a cloak for large and hidden interests. We suggest, therefore, that ideas of the university can be put to a test, a test composed of various criteria of adequacy (Barnett, 2013). Our earlier discussion has surely intimated certain such criteria of adequacy. In these remaining paragraphs of this Introduction, let us edge towards just such a set of criteria by which ideas of the university might be judged.

Concepts are appropriate or not to their context, and the context of the university in the twenty-first century is not what it was in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Perhaps the key consideration is that the university of the twenty-first century is deeply connected with the wider world. Willy-nilly, the university cannot escape this interconnectedness. Accordingly, adequate ideas of the university have to take on an externalist aspect. Adequate ideas are not going to be forthcoming where they are limited to interests and concepts of the university that have purely internalist leanings.

Further, across the world, the university has come to respond to a particular range of interests, especially those that frame the university in the service of cognitive capitalism (Boutang, 2011), and which play up institutional competition, the economic value of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines and the student as an economic subject. Ideas of the university, therefore, have a dual responsibility to heed this global context but to stretch it, and to seek spaces that widen the potential of the university in the world.

To say this is to say quite a bit. To call up some of our earlier distinctions, it is to displace internalist ideas of the university so as to encompass the university’s external hinterland, and to put in a plea additionally for visionary and imaginative ← 11 | 12 → concepts that might widen the university’s self-understanding in the world. It is to call attention—if it was needed—to the university as an institution as well as the bearer of ideas. It is to urge that philosophies of the university should adopt an explicitly realist aspect, being sensitive to the university as—in part—existing independently of ideas held of it, being in part steered by massive global forces that lie beyond immediate observation. It is to place a responsibility on those who might venture ideas of the university that they be constructive and not merely critical. And it is to be optimistic, not in the sense that matters will improve for the university but to sense that there is warrant for the imagination to do its work and that plausibly the university can be steered into a wider set of spaces; and there may even be embryonic examples of the university becoming other than its dominant forms suggest. It is to imbue the philosophy of the university with a hopeful spirit.

It is just possible, for instance (and to pick up some of the ideas on view here), to glimpse new kinds of open universities, of socialist universities that are determined to open themselves to participation by the wider world, of universities for which the attribute of wisdom is fitting, of universities that are embarked on a path of engagement with their surrounding communities, of universities of culture which are adorning their physical spaces with public art and encouraging all manner of cultural events and activities, of cosmopolitan universities that not only take advantage of their students-as-visitors from over a hundred countries but reach out into the world in a spirit that traverses cultures and communities and of ecological universities that are sensitive to their being embedded in manifold ecosystems and that are wanting to do all they can to enhance those ecosystems. The literature is, yes, ahead of, but in some ways, too, it is behind the university: in fact, in their interstices, universities across the world can be seen as stretching themselves into new constructive spaces in society, both by themselves and in association with other universities and with regional and global agencies.

In short, the idea of the university is not at an end. To the contrary, as this volume testifies, the idea of the university is alive and is being reinvigorated. New life is being breathed into it. But, as implied, we need not just new ideas of the university but we need robust ideas, ideas that will simultaneously:

Together, these seven desiderata form a weighty set of criteria of adequacy. But they are necessary if ideas of the university are to prove their worth in a hostile and interest-laden world, with powerful forces at work that would callously steer the university in unduly limited ways. It is criteria such as these that will help to sift the conceptual wheat from the interest-laden chaff. Only through demanding criteria such as these can we hope to find ideas of the university that are going to help steer the university in new directions in which the university can sustain itself amid powerful global forces. And only through criteria such as these can ideas of the university emerge that are adequate to the situation in which universities find themselves in the twenty-first century across the world.

We believe that this volume of essays on contemporary perspectives does justice to these considerations. It shows critiques, empirically founded insights, conceptual accounts and imaginative ideas. There are even glimpses of utopia but they have an element of feasibility attached to them. Between them, the chapters offer a rich tapestry of interweaving themes and suggestions, which together—a bit like the Bayeux tapestry—forms a kaleidoscope of moving images, vistas and scenes. Together, they surely supply prompts for yet further thinking and action in relation to the idea of the university in the twenty-first century.


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X, 624
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (April)
New York, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. X, 624 pp. 7 b/w ills., 9 tables

Biographical notes

Ronald Barnett (Volume editor) Michael Adrian Peters (Volume editor)

Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, University College London Institute of Education. He has spent a lifetime in establishing the philosophy of higher education as a field, advancing original concepts and practical principles. His latest book is The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia (2018). Michael A. Peters is Professor in the Wilf Malcolm Institute for Educational Research at Waikato University, NZ, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. He is also Distinguished Visiting Professor in the School of Sociology, BNU, China. He is Executive Editor of Educational Philosophy and Theory and founding editor of several other journals. His latest books are Wittgenstein and Education: Pedagogical Investigations (2017), with Jeff Stickney, and The Digital University: Manifesto and Dialogue (2017), with Petar Jandric.


Title: The Idea of the University