Markets, modern universities, ancient values

by Paul Maharg on 22/11/2013

A while back I attended a two-day ASSA workshop  at the ANU College of Law, organized and convened by Professors Margaret Thornton and Glenn Withers.  I missed the first couple of sessions, but came in on Geoff Brennan’s paper on markets and Australian universities; and Fiona Jenkins’ very impressive paper on the impact of research evaluation exercises and the way they reproduce and strengthen gendered hierarchies of knowledge within ‘meritocratic’ frameworks.

After lunch, Kanushka Jayasuriya spoke on the emergence of the new education regulatory state and its implications for the production and sites of knowledge.  Argued that in talking about effects on the public university, we need to define ‘public’.  Quoted Stefan Collini’s article in the LRB, contrasting Robbins with McKinsey, and the nostalgia for the world of Robbins.  In the transition, he argued, the very nature of ‘public’ undergoes transformation.  The public university doesn’t disappear, really, but is reconstituted within the new regulatory arrangements and projects, introduced not least by regulators.  Universities no longer protect students from the market, but ready students for the market — a ‘form of market citizenship, a social democratic embedding of neoliberalism’.  Nice phrase, showing how tooth & claw neoliberalism can be finessed and airbrushed for political purposes.  We can see this, he argues, in the AU Bradley Report.  As a result, what matters as regards HE is not markets per se, but regulation that configures and re-configures markets.  Interesting point.  Surely there are two consequential effect here: indirect effect — regulation on markets, then markets on HE — but also a direct effect, regulation (constructed for whatever purpose) on HE?  And what happens when there’s a conflict between the two?  He cited the example of London Met and the international postgrad crisis there, and the use of universities as mediating influences between the Home Office and UK borders.  KJ foresaw that happening in AU, particularly with the change of government.

Next up, Diane Kirkby Kerreen Reiger, from La Trobe University, on ‘A Case Study of Organisational Change’ on the relational, embedded, concrete context of work done in University.  In Kerreen’s work in the Health Studies field, she took complexity theory to try to explain organisational healthcare and Edgar Morin (Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future).  Top-down models don’t work: don’t produce thinking, reflective people.  Diane focused on why changes occurred in  their Faculty in La Trobe.

Two interesting papers, giving examples of the dynamics and politics of what is happening in AU universities, and the effect of markets on the everyday actions of academics and administrators.  In question time,  very perceptive points made by Glenn Withers about the culture that we’ve evolving into, noting the move, historically, from an elite (Oxbridge) to a Humboldtian disciplinary university; and we are satisfied with neither, he said.  What would the new model look like, if not the models described in this session, he wondered?  What about interdisciplinary?  What about an interdisciplinarity of interdisciplines?

Interesting points.  But in response to Glenn, and given that the seminar was in part about ‘a re-theorisation of the university’, I’d venture to say that the genealogies of HE do give us alternatives: historically there are different models.  What about the Freirian model of study and social context; or the Scottish model of moral philosophy curriculum in the 18th to early twentieth century, together with what Jean Barr, Donald Withrington and others have unearthed as adaptive practices that fostered access and diversity, not just in the form of the curriculum but in access to the institution itself.  What would these look like, in a twenty-first century world?  What attracts me to Adam Ferguson amongst other Enlightenment figures is that for him, working within an eighteenth century market for Higher Education in Scotland, it’s a given that philosophical tradition (in his case forms of Stoic virtu), nearly two millennia in its adaptation, had something to say to his society.  The working out of that value system within contemporary eighteenth century Scotland was in many respects his life’s work as a philosopher, and was the foundation of his view of what universities were for.

In a seminar paper I gave recently to Westminster Law School, at the invitation of Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, I quoted Ronald Barnett’s eloquent protest against the reductionism of competence approaches —

Wisdom is not the only virtue that is having a poor time of it in the modern university. Patience, humility, generosity, perseverance, thoroughness, carefulness, quietness: these might once have been felt to be signs of a strength of character. No longer. In an age of self-promotion, self-presentation, visibility, efficiency, work-rate, personal performance indicators and sheer competitiveness, character traits such as these come to be seen as signs of personal weakness.[1]

But Barnett’s is a lament for lost values.  I prefer the vigorous activism of Ferguson:

Now is your time to begin Practices and lay the Foundation of habits that may be of use to you in every Condition and in every Profession at least that is founded on a literary or a Liberal Education. Sapere and Fari quae sentiat are the great Objects of Literary Education and of Study. … mere knowledge however important is far from being the only or most important Attainment of Study.

The habits of Justice, Candour, Benevolence, and a Courageous Spirit are the first Objects of Philosophy the Constituents of happiness and of personal honour, and the first Qualifications for human society and for Active life.[2]

‘To know’, and ‘to say what you feel’ — what might be regarded as competence objectives, Ferguson even using the word ‘Objects’; but the source is Horace, Epistles I, iv, addressed to the poet Albius Tibullus, speaking of typical Horatian values of moderation, sophistication, irony.  And then in the second paragraph Ferguson’s great statement focuses on what he saw as the real values of higher education.  Are these under threat?  Of course: in many ways, in every age.  Are they working fighting for?  Absolutely.

  1. [1]Barnett, R. (1994) The Limits of Competence. Knowledge, Higher Education and Society, Buckingham, Society for Research into Higher Education, Open University, pp. 151-2.
  2. [2] Sher, R.B. (1990) Professors of virtue: the social history of the Edinburgh Moral Philosophy Chair, in: M.A. Stewart (ed.) Eighteenth Century Studies in the Philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp.117-8, citing Adam Ferguson, Lectures, 1775-6.  Ferguson’s lectures and mss, including his letters, are archived in Edinburgh University.  His lectures, edited, appear in Ferguson, A. (1792) Principles of Moral and Political Science: Being Chiefly a Retrospect of Lectures Delivered in the College of Edinburgh, in Two Volumes.  Edinburgh, Strathan and Cadell.

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