The Idea of the University



It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow.

John Henry Newman, The Idea of the University, 1873


In a 1971 article on the idea of the university in the once vital New Zealand literary journal Landfall, G. F. Waller laments the utilitarianism of then prime minister Robert Muldoon’s view of education. He argues against education for the market’s sake and for a renewal of the university’s mission to educate citizens, to foster civic virtue. Significantly, Waller says nothing at all about producing works for publication, giving papers at conferences, constructing research networks, getting patents or grants, or teaching buy-out—or even university administration.

The current standoff at the University of Auckland between its Vice-Chancellor and academics makes it hard not to talk about university administration, at least, and to demonise management and managerialism. The dispute concerns the ‘administrative efficiencies’ that the VC thinks will be gained by shifting key work conditions from the collective agreement to university policy, where, no doubt, they can be more easily modified to advance the objectives of the university’s Strategic Plan—to which his key performance indicators (KPIs) and other university econometrics are benchmarked.

Such manoeuvres widen the divide between management and academics, fermenting academics’ distrust of management and despair for lack of an alternative—Thatcher’s ‘TINA’. Though the PBRF (Performance-Based Research Fund) econometric is the focus of academics’ protest, it is the idea of the university that is really at stake. Union activity might cause the VC to worry about meeting his KPIs, but cannot by itself overturn the neo-liberal ‘philosophy’ (as he calls it) that both governs his behaviour and denies academics any public sympathy. To neo-liberals Waller’s university would look like a place of inflexible and inefficient tax-supported privilege, and academic protest the special pleading of rent-seeking elites.

We can bemoan the climate, but the grounds of a response to neo-liberalism must themselves be reworked if we are to recover the critical force and public appeal of Waller and his forebears Newman and Leavis, especially given that public relations may prove decisive in this local dispute. The idea of the university and place of the increasingly threatened humanities in it must be rethought.

For us, this means recasting the humanities/science divide in the light of emerging knowledge practices, in particular the networks of distributed intelligence that constitute the digital academy (what links the humanities and sciences is an interest in pure, non-applied or yet-to-be applied knowledge). It means speaking to the inculcation of self-management that makes academics and students alike into what Charles Handy, in The Age of Unreason, calls ‘portfolio people for a global market’. And it means attending to the ranking of performance via the peer-credentialising of networks in the name of ‘excellence’ that is a key aspect of academic econometrics.

We would argue that the utility calculus of the neo-liberal university makes the humanities no different from sciences in the way that the value of education is measured. But we do not think this is a bad thing. Rather, it is an opportunity to rethink the university as both a locus of technology and a community of interest. The word ‘community’ suggests that the function of the university must be something other, or more, than an account of its performance. For all the neo-liberal talk of promoting global citizenship, partnerships and bright futures, the real ‘interest’ at stake in the discourse of accounting that dominates the university is counting itself — the ‘proxy variables’ in terms of which our work is ever-more stringently prescribed  (see Rod Beecham in Arena Magazine no. 106). Here, to be valued is to be adding value.

What isn’t captured by academic econometrics, and the managerial culture that administers them, is the simple idea that community is a non-countable good. This is the value, we think, of talking face-to-face—the supreme value in a Maori place of korero kanohi ki te kanohi (speaking face to face). A contemporary Muldoon or VC might well ask that this good be counted like any other, but the real problem we confront is the machinic nature of neo-liberal capitalism, and no particular person. After all, VCs can be perfectly nice—and well-meaning—people.

The neo-liberal university, the University 2.0 (U 2.0), didn’t come from nowhere. If the U 1.0 is the old university of the guilds, which survives in the Oxbridge model, then the U 1.5 is the national university on von Humboldt’s model, the ‘university of culture’. Our local universities were instituted in its spirit with the aim of creating cultural capital for the nation. The neo-liberal U 2.0, the so-called ‘university of excellence’, aims to produce intellectual capital for the global market in the form of world-excellent research. It is no longer the bricks-and-mortar edifice of old; it is steel and glass, and the principles of its design (‘robust’ and ‘transparent’) are values that permeate all levels of its operations. It is generic by design, and it means business.

However, it has a double aspect: it’s a place of business, but also has an invisible technological doppelganger, the network university. Academics and students inside and outside the university are its ‘nodes’. Most of its content is delivered by traditional means, by a straightforward download model, academic-node to student-node, even when newish technologies like learning management systems and online modules are used. Such a delivery conforms, then, to the ‘work-programming’ of the university: there are no ‘own programs’ here, to borrow media theorist Vilèm Flusser’s terms. But some content circulates by less traditional means, mainly, but not solely, through new web 2.0 technologies (Facebook and blogs, in particular) that facilitate feedback, an up-and-down (or back-and-forth) exchange of ideas, a less calculable talk. Such talk works to deform the programming of the university to create new or own programs that escape the utility calculus of the neo-liberal university, though it looks like time-wasting to managers. And it’s easy to forget that leisure—time to think—is a good that can itself produce public good (see Matthew Sharpe in Arena Magazine no. 103). For us, the university is the pause that takes time that is otherwise unaccountable, and that takes the time to account for counting itself.

Accepting that the foremost drive of education today is learning that can be applied (use-value), the deeper drive is to make learning a matter of its measure in economic terms (exchange-value)—hence the academic econometrics of the business model of education, and the managerial rhetoric of transparency, efficiency and productivity (a.k.a. Total Quality Management: TQM). When the value of education to the wider community is counted in this way, ‘community’ is converted into a for-profit collective: another utility calculus. Accountability means the drive both to count all inputs and outputs and, as an aggregate of this counting, to be thereby ‘accountable’. Accountability is delivered by the transparency of measurement itself.

We would argue that accountability has two senses: firstly, counting, budgeting, statistics and so on; secondly, being accountable, having to justify one’s self, actions or job. The idea of the university today works to reduce the latter to the former. In short, education becomes a process of continuous improvement by producing processes of its measure, or processes to measure improvement. ‘Excellence’, a.k.a. ‘international best practice’, is the measure. This is the rationale for the PBRF mechanism, which accounts for all aspects of academic work by analysing, reporting and ranking researchers and their research. PBRF extends and externalizes the micro-measuring—and thereby micro-managing—of academics and students at the university (TQM again), and increases the distrust and despair that results from such microprogramming. The technocratic apparatus that has evolved to make PBRF work is questionable on a cost-benefit analysis, and its educational and social benefits are not obvious.

Academic econometrics effectively incorporate academics and students within a larger corporate structure that maps onto other such corporate bodies nationally and transnationally. It exemplifies the preset programming or templating by which neo-liberal technocapitalism works. In the application of econometrics as ‘international best practice’ in the university (a business model), we see the emergence of the template university, which creates, as a public (economic) good, the template student. The template student is merely the raw material—and funding unit—of the new university. This student isn’t any actual student from any actual place but an aggregate, actually an account or count, of the design objectives and outcomes of university courses, which themselves align with those of the faculty and university, and, ultimately, with the design drive of neo-liberal technocapitalism. The template student is the countable product of this university, and the new model citizen of a neo-liberal global commons.

Likewise, the template university makes universities from Auckland to Minnesota no different in their transnational aspiration and business model. The template includes partnerships with industry, research-to-market transfer, inter-university research networks, tiered and flexible employment structures, and star-academic and logo-driven recruitment. This cluster of attributes doesn’t just require a new management apparatus, but makes academics and students alike their own managers: innovative, mobile resource units; academic entrepreneurs who can work anywhere, anytime, creating markets for themselves. While such operations are rationalised in terms of local and global betterment, success is measured—and it must be measureable—in terms of ‘numerical flexibility’: the ability of the university as a ‘flexible firm’ to adapt and succeed in a competitive marketplace.

There follows the ubiquitous first-to-the-future rhetoric. That you will get left behind is the negative incentive. Locally, this plays out as fast-following. In an influential paper about how New Zealand should respond to climate change, David Skilling, CEO of the New Zealand Institute, makes a virtue of pragmatism and a contradiction of the rhetoric of entrepreneurialism: New Zealand, he argues, shouldn’t lead nor lag too far behind its peers in cutting carbon emissions. Instead, ‘fast following’ will assure us an advantageous and profitable position. Insofar as our universities have embraced this principle, they are hardly entrepreneurial or innovative.

The deeper contradiction lies in the idea of the template university and the rhetoric of excellence itself. The existence of the template for the neo-liberal university ensures that the university reproduces an existing model and needn’t itself create any other idea of a university. It is, then, neither entrepreneurial nor innovative, for its ‘idea’ of the university comes from elsewhere, or nowhere, and is unfolded with near-Darwinian necessity as neo-liberalism makes over the local place and people in its own image. Arriving first in the future isn’t just desirable, it’s inevitable. The contradiction is all the more glaring in the smaller, more isolated, more exposed and more provincial setting of New Zealand. And the consequences for the local community are all the more harsh.

This academic provincialism is exemplified by our fast-following idea of research excellence, which seems to be all about business confidence: ‘excellent’ equals ‘international best practice’ equals ‘attractive to transnational capital’. The world-excellent research of an academic entrepreneur may well improve his or her PBRF score and enrich the university, but it needn’t critically engage with local culture. The academic only attends to local culture in exogamous terms, established elsewhere in ‘excellent’ academic contexts and conversations. Real confidence, conversely, requires a trust that is irreducible to TQM. You cannot outsource governance, as managerial culture requires, and maintain the trust that defines human community. Nor can a ‘community’ be simply understood as a for-profit collective. Trust can only be secured through encounter and exchange, through talking face-to-face.

The ‘excellence’ of the neo-liberal university, when locally embedded, suggests to us an inauthentic and panicked provincialism. How can we know we are ‘excellent’ if we don’t find examples of excellence elsewhere and then by following them produce work in their image? What would we give our fast-following, world-excellent university? A B+, maybe an A– (the A–/B+ mark is always so hard to decide on). Its second-best best practice isn’t actually entrepreneurial or innovative, let alone distinctive or local, but blandly corporatist and might as well be anywhere. It may well be excellent according to the indices of excellence, but this just serves to illustrate the tautology of template thinking. It doesn’t mean it is vital or vibrant.

Provincialism, the local dread of being local, needn’t always be a vice. A virtuous provincialism, to re-code Newman’s ‘genius loci … which haunts the home where it has been born’, would offer a distinctive educational experience, one that takes up the local and makes over the transnational. It’s a mix of what we would call ‘code-conformance’ and ‘code-deformance’: conformance because we use ideas from elsewhere, deformance because we can pick and choose among them, and have other ideas to hand. We don’t imagine that the network society of transnational capitalism is going away, or simply passing, but, as against the theory of TINA, we don’t in practice accept the dictates of neo-liberalism that drives it at present.

Our version of virtuous provincialism also takes education seriously: it teaches the university, making discipline, pedagogy, genre, style, subjectivity and so forth part of its teaching. It assumes that students are already part of communities of interest inside and outside the university. It aims to create creators of knowledge, rather than fillers-in of knowledge templates. Most importantly, it is ‘up-building’, producing and promoting the community-building virtues: trust and courage. A will to not-for-profit community is the key to virtuous provincialism, and can serve as a work-around, or modus operandi, for productive dissent from the dictates of neo-liberalism.

The loss of community is felt most gravely in the loss of the educational mission of the university, namely, to educate. For academics, if not their managers, or even the academic manager, teaching and learning are more than just one of the many objectives and outcomes of the charter of the for-profit university. Teaching cultivates and communicates the humane values that are central to a vital and vibrant community. Today’s academic entrepreneur, however, is ‘incentivised’ to get teaching buy-out. It’s hard to think of a more graphic illustration of the abrogation of the responsibility to educate—and the corrosion of the university community.

World-excellent scholars actually widen the distance between themselves and their students by cultivating transnational research networks. Their research community is located in the airport and hotel lounges and conference centres of international conferences. Community life back on campus becomes a matter of professionalisation and socialising in global credentialising circuits. Students, in turn, internalise the entrepreneurialism of academics, and assume no more responsibility to the university community than the academics do.

We don’t find this a good account of our experience as teachers or, it seems to us, of the experience of our students. Even if the template of the U 2.0 can account for research productivity, it can’t account for what goes on the university in anything but econometric terms. As knowledge becomes commodity, the idea of the university has been subsumed by its own practices of measuring the production of knowledge. We would rehabilitate Newman’s idea of the university and its civic function, its will to community, as against the global citizenship of the neo-liberal university, with its flight from community.

We would make teaching the all-important talk of the university and the classroom a vital and vibrant site of encounter and a model for the university community. Such talk today is scripted, transcribed and on-sold—as PBRF-countable essays and books—but it is the encounter, not the script, that is key to real talk. Just talking might well be a problem for the university, but because we’re talking doesn’t mean we’re not working; it just means that we’re not working to the template. We’re making time—but also taking our time, which of course disrupts the ‘rate of change’ in the neo-liberal factory of knowledge-production that is the U 2.0. Taking our time and talking—idling—in university spaces informed by technocapitalist work-programming is creative and critical because it works at its own pace, rather than fast-following. And it is community-building. Mixing code-conformance and deformance is the key to creativity and critical thinking, both processes that are apparently highly valued in the new university and no less important to good teaching. Talk is about code-conformance and deformance. In other words, talking through our ideas—articulating or working with others to articulate them, persuading others of them, weighing them against others’—is their best test.

This community is a non-countable but real good, though it escapes the utility calculus of the U 2.0. It follows that our idea of the university makes the classroom central to education, a classroom that works Socratically, in an open-ended and open-eyed process of question and answer. Nor is the idea of the university itself exempt from this process. Indeed, we think the ‘university’ is constituted by this process, so that a university can be said to operate wherever such talk takes place—not a transnational floating or flying university, but a local face-to-face university, a talking place (wahi korero). And the humanities are well placed to foster such talk.

Such a place of talk can promote an open exchange of learning and about learning: it becomes, to recall Newman, a true place of education—not just academic, but civic education. This is how we think the university ought to work and how we teach. We certainly feel responsible for giving an account of teaching, but this isn’t the same as counting teaching objectives and outcomes. Teaching cannot be end-stopped—preset and calculated—in this way. If the design-drive enacted in the neo-liberal university is technocapitalist, it nonetheless unfolds, particularly in the classroom, in affective terms. Its outcomes, whatever its objectives, are neither calculable nor preset. And if technology mediates that design-drive, its remediation by academics and students can nevertheless serve to redesign—or redirect the design drive of—the neo-liberal university.


Sean Sturm and Stephen Turner








Categorised: Arena Magazine Essay


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