Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What is Education For?

Those of us embedded in higher education, who are arguably more responsible for its direction and impact on the human family and the planet we share, ought to take some time to reflect on the forces that are working on this institution. I cannot fathom a better guidebook for such a journey than Prof. Ronald Barnett’s Imagining the University. Barnett, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education from the Institute of Education, London University.


       My main quarry in this book is how we think about the university and how we might imagine it. And here, my primary contention is that the ways in which we think about the university are unduly limited. So the main object here lies in concepts of the university; and the story is one of their scope and, more particularly, of their impoverishment.  p.90

The tone of inquiry, the breadth of possibilities he would have us consider, seems at its heart to be precisely what higher education should be about. In the process he shares some 120 noted ‘sightings’ of ideas of the university. He offers a framework for considering the ideas along three axes. In the process he uses examples and  critically applies the framework.

       Here, surely, opens a critique of the marketplace. The market, so often heralded as sponsoring  difference, turns out to constrain imaginative thought. The strangeness of the Picasso painting is unlikely to find its equivalent among universities. Indeed, it appears universities across the world wish to ape each other in their strivings as ‘world-class universities’ in the (two leading) world rankings. The global academic marketplace orients universities towards uniformity more than difference. Regularity rather than angularity, predictability rather than serendipity: the risk-averse environment subtly encourages limits to ideas through which a university might glimpse its possibilities. Across the world, universities embrace the familiar rather than the strange; and the orderly rather than the disrupted. Not many would appear to offer a home to would-be followers of Picasso, as they review their corporate strategies. pp. 71-72.

Barnett is encouraging us to step back and look deeply, thoughtfully, and imaginatively about the institutions we serve and if the idea(s)/forces  they are shaping or being shaped by are what the human family and the single home we share need from us. This is time well spent.

P.S. I’m only two-thirds through this thoughtful exercise. More to follow as I move ahead

About Dr. Ronald Barnett

Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is a recognized authority on the conceptual and theoretical understanding of the university and higher education. His books, several of which have won prizes and have been translated into other languages, include The Idea of Higher Education, Higher Education: A Critical Business, Realizing the University in an age of supercomplexity, Beyond All Reason: Living with Ideology in the University, and A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty (all published by McGraw-Hill).  Being a University (Routledge -- January 2011). Ronald Barnett has held senior positions at the Institute of Education, including that of Pro-Director for Longer Term Strategy and was also, for seven years, a Dean. He is a past Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and has recently served as a Special Adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee Inquiry into Universities and Students. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and the Society for Research into Higher Education and is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and Visiting Professor at universities in China and Australia. He is also acts as a consultant, and has worked with most of the national organizations in the UK and many individual universities, including the University of the West Indies and the TATA University Institute of Social Sciences in India. He has been awarded a higher doctorate of the University of London, is an Academician of Social Sciences and was the recipient of the inaugural 'Distinguished Researcher' prize of the European Association for Institutional Research (EAIR). He has been a keynote speaker in over 30 countries.