What is a University for?

By Andrew Hass
3 Jun 2011

The University is in a crisis. Even casual readers of the broadsheets know this. But the crisis is not what most people think, including those who run the University itself. The crisis is not that the University is underfunded, and therefore has to start cutting back on staff, programmes, and services. Nobody would deny the University is underfunded, and that the breadth and quality of education it once offered is now being seriously eroded. But funding is not where the real crisis lies. Cutbacks are just the symptom of a greater underlying problem. The real crisis is an identity crisis.

What, in this early millennium, and at this present stage of modernity, is the University for? What is its role in society? What is its fundamental raison d’être? We are being told one thing, and one thing only: it is to be an engine of the economy. It is to be, alongside several of other central engines, a crucial driver of economic activity. The government tells us this. The economists tell us this. Business tells us this.

Now, increasingly, those who manage the universities – the Chancellors, the Vice-Chancellors, the Principals, the top administrators – tell us this. And thus, as part of the economic machine, the University must become more efficient, more corporate, and run on business models that have proven effectiveness towards economic growth.

This all may seem sensible enough, especially as the global economy becomes more homogenous, while still struggling to emerge from a recession that has made every institution (except banks) more fiscally aware, and more fiscally parsimonious. But the problem is that the University, as an institution, never began as an economic generator, run on the model of business.

Nor have its main contributors, those who make the University what it is, the researchers and lecturers, ever seen themselves, except only very recently, and then not by choice but by coercion, as in the business of business. We did not undergo seven or more years of post-secondary education to become experts in fuelling the economy by providing qualified workers and immediately transferable research.

Thus the crisis of identity. The University is being told it is one thing, but the very 'cogs in the machine' do not, either by definition or by training, operate towards that end. They do not buy the metaphor of the machine or the engine itself. They do not buy the metaphor of buying. But they are now equally hard-pressed to tell us what they do accept.

The modern University has lost sight of its roots as liberal education. This is most salient in the area of the humanities: the University no longer has a sense of the 'liberal arts'. Here, if we follow the theories of higher education that were forged during the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, 'liberal' meant free from control of the State, from control of the Church, and from control of Business.

This did not mean liberal arts subjects did not treat the domains of politics, religion and economics in their thinking. Far from it. But it did mean these domains did not set the agenda for research and teaching, did not dictate the curricula. Research was free to investigate all areas open-endedly, without vested interests, without being directed and governed by spread sheet logic and statistics.

This was more than merely knowledge for knowledge sake; it was based on what it understood as the proper culturing, or cultivation, of humanity, and of the structures by which humanity should live.

Research was free to probe, to question, to critique, to innovate the very paradigms under which we might find ourselves trying to live our lives, or better them. And these paradigms included those ruling within the domains of the State, the Church, and Business (which now too must be 'capitalised').

We now have a ruling global paradigm of liberal, free-market democracy – a politics so deeply entwined with an economic ideology (or a political ideology so deeply entwined with an economic) the two cannot be separated or distinguished – which, as a matter of course, is sold to us as truth. By imposing this paradigm upon the University, where now is the legitimate and legitimated voices who can, in the name of open-ended enquiry, ask the critical question: Is this the best paradigm available? Is this the only one we should be cultivating, and at all levels?

It might be. I cannot say I know the answer. But I do know the question needs to be asked, the matter debated, and no more than within the University itself. We need to address the fundamental issue of identity: what is the University now for? What is the University for now? And we need to debate this outside the context of a corporate understanding of balance sheets, of key performance indicators, and of government-led funding-driven research exercises.

Must teaching and researching the disciplines of the arts and humanities necessarily lead towards some economic liquidity? Must careerism be the only motive for studying a subject like religion, or philosophy, or history, or literature? No one is debating these questions within the academy.

The crisis is precisely that we cannot, under the present paradigm, find the space or the time to debate these questions. We are too busy administrating our way through the system, too busy conforming our research projects to maximise our minimal chances of being awarded external research funding from sources wholly wedded to the ruling paradigm, too busy writing departmental narratives that align ourselves to economic justification, too busy adjusting to managerial restructuring, too busy trying to attract 'customers' through marketing schemes, too busy trying to achieve top-rate status as teachers and researchers who validate the ruling assumptions, too busy simply trying to survive what has become a profession with its own deep psychoses.

My own area, the study of religion (and theology), like so many of its cognate disciplines, will never be able to justify its existence on the grounds of economic contribution, careerist employability or spread sheet empiricism alone. Nor should it have to try. But it does, like others, have a tremendous amount to add to the debate about ruling paradigms. As we know, it had a monopoly on this subject – for better or for worse – for a good portion of the last millennium. And it should be given every chance to continue in that debate.

But the debate is not happening. Not in the halls of the government. Not in the aisles of the churches. Not in the boardrooms of the corporations. Not in the files of the so-called independent think-tanks. And not, worst of all, in the academic classrooms and research centres.

Perhaps blogs might be the only truly liberal sphere available these days.

-----------

© Andrew W. Hass teaches Religion at the University of Stirling, with specialty crossovers in Philosophy and Literature. He moved to Scotland after five years at as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Honors College of the University of Houston, Texas, USA. He is originally from Vancouver, Canada.


This article is one of a continuous series appearing on Ekklesia through our association with the University of Stirling Critical Religion group blog. CR is a research project bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can also follow Critical Religion on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StirCritRel

Critical Religion articles and news on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/criticalreligion

Moderated comments can be left on: http://www.criticalreligion.stir.ac.uk/blog/

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.