By Sam Grinsell |

Something is afoot in UK universities. Fourteen days of strikes about pensions have brought together staff from across different generations, roles and departments. On the picket lines and on social media, supported by students dissatisfied with soaring fees, discussions have begun about a new vision of higher education. Going beyond simply trying to limit the excesses of neoliberalism, workers from across the university are beginning to imagine an alternative kind of institution. Of course, the roots of this go back to protests against fees, and have been growing through movements like Antiuniversity Now, but now what seemed marginal has moved to the centre of campus and online discussion.

In speaking of a new university, I do not mean one new institution. Just as the neoliberal university is understood as an amorphous set of assumptions and practices that has infected every aspect of higher education, so the new university exists more as a set of ideals toward which universities might move. As students, scholars and professional staff increasingly realise that we are the university, we should attempt to bring about this move. In this post I set out three aspects of the new university that differ not only from the neoliberal university but also from earlier models of higher education in the United Kingdom. They are, of course, far from exhaustive, but represent three areas of radical hope that I think we should pursue, even knowing that full realisation is impossible.

Co-operation, not command

On top of the traditional hierarchies of academic life, the neoliberal university added an increasingly distinct management structure, with its own career path and salaries modeled on the private sector. Institutional policies became tools to manage student and staff behaviour, and national audits such as the Research Excellence Framework were used as performance measures pitting departments and individuals against one another.

The new university seeks to bring power back into the hands of staff, to recognise that it is departments that are the experts on their discipline or their facilities. Collaboration between departments, and sharing of ideas, can be facilitated by professional services staff freed of the burden of imposing centralised diktats, lending their skills and expertise to an organisation that is far more open to variety and change than anything that has preceded it. Students can take an active role in their own learning, as co-designers of modules and syllabuses. This responsive, critical, engaged learning environment would deliver an education far beyond what we have ever been able to offer.

For society, not the individual

The university fees introduced under New Labour and radically increased by David Cameron’s government have been criticised for being too expensive (both to the state and students) and for misunderstanding who benefits from university education. What was once seen as a public good has been reframed as a way of improving an individual’s earning prospects. So deep has this assumption gone that there is an increasing tendency to use graduate earnings as a proxy measure for the quality of a university course.

In order to change this narrative, supporters of the new university need to do more than campaign to lower or reduce fees. Universities already do extensive work with wider society, in industry, education, heritage, policy and so on. This work should be central to the new university, and everyone from students to professors should be prepared to actively engage with their local communities to find ways in which university resources can serve them. The ancient town and gown divide, that can be found inscribed in the security gates and high walls of some contemporary campuses, must become a fertile border where ideas and collaboration grow. Research and teaching will become more dynamic and engaged as a result.

Equality of institutions and individuals

The neoliberal university built a system of measures purported to encourage competition between institutions, that ultimately entrenched the privilege of the wealthiest. A cabal of older universities, the Russell Group, fiercely protects its own interests and styles itself the representative of elite institutions. The historical privilege of reputation has only been enhanced by the increasing number of national and international audit systems. Meanwhile, the highest levels of university management and the professoriate remain dominated by white men, even as the student body becomes increasingly diverse.

The new university aims to dismantle these systems of privilege. It will seek collaboration between universities rather than competition, acknowledging that we, the community of higher education, wish to pursue ideas irrespective of what institutional label comes attached to them. Wealthy universities will not be permitted to skim off the most promising students and then congratulate themselves on how good they are: anyone with the intelligence and inclination to go to university should be able to do so. Any university worth the name should be able to educate a qualifying student, not only the best prepared and most privileged. The reduction in hierarchical systems across the board will itself reduce white patriarchal power, but through open declaration of pay and transparent recruitment practices the new university will continue to work toward a future where the highest ranking university officials are as diverse as their students.

Conclusion

The dream of a new university did not begin with the strike, but it has been spread by it. The aspirations covered here concern the organisational characteristics of the hoped for new system, but it should be clear that to realise this depends on secure employment for all members of the higher education community. In defending pensions, many have come to recognise that this is a shared dream, that we are not alone. The practices detailed above may seem radical, but most or all of them build on existing policies in the UK or elsewhere. It is time to think about the possibility of a radical higher education, before this moment of solidarity begins to break apart. It is time for a new university.

Sam Grinsell is in the second year of a PhD in Architecture at the University of Edinburgh, and is the chair of Pubs and Publications.

Image Edinburgh University Old College By LWYang from USA (University of Edinburgh) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons