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

(I’ve checked with Keith and the absence of a seventh principle between the sixth and the eighth is a simple error!)

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. 

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

Second principle: many institutions can become universities

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

Fourth principle: the ideal scholar is an active scholar

Fifth principle: the ideal scholar has time for reflection

Sixth principle: the ideal scholar researches

Eighth principle: the ideal scholar teaches

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

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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