The democratic academy?
As has been mentioned repeatedly in this blog, higher education has over recent years been under unprecedented pressure. This has been caused by a number of converging factors, including funding cuts, public criticism of standards, and internal criticism of organisational and managerial methods. Mostly the pressures have created an environment which has become less than happy for those working within it, but it has at least prompted a lively debate on what universities are actually for. But has this debate really answered any of our questions?
Today’s universities are often – and in my view correctly – seen as institutions that are essential for a thriving economy. But perhaps another key issue to reflect upon during these turbulent times is how universities either reinforce or undermine the values of democracy. Until fairly recently universities were the gatekeepers of economic and social privilege, while maintaining internal values of equality and democracy. Then, with the massification of higher education, universities became educational destinations for almost anyone in society with the intellectual talent, but internally they have increasingly been seen by some as being directed by a managerial class. What we may be experiencing right now is a growing separation between the top universities catering more and more for the privileged (described recently as ‘finishing schools for the elite’) and those without the same resources but a more representative student body.
How we arrange higher education is more than a matter of fine-tuning educational standards. It is about securing a better, more just, more open, more successful, more productive society. It is about having institutions that raise both educational and living standards and add to the development of culture and scholarship across society as a whole; but also about having institutions that organise themselves in a way that reflects those ideals.
We need an academy that doesn’t unnecessarily squander public money; but that is not the primary aim. We need to discover what we actually want the academy to be. As a society we have never really known that.
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