Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA)

UK Plc: Co-Producing the Monoversity

November 29, 2010 17 Comments

John Holmwood, University of Nottingham

When the architect of California’s system of public education, Clark Kerr wrote in the 1960s of the diverse character of the modern University (The Uses of the University, 1963), and the increasing significance of its contribution to the economy, he was widely criticised for discounting the traditional values of the University. He coined the term multiversity. His aim was to identify the diversity of functions of a University and also to warn that some important functions – those associated with the public values of education in developing character and culture – were in danger of being undermined. Kerr’s arguments coincided with the expansion of higher education and a new generation of students who criticised his acceptance that one of its roles was engagement with the corporate economy. They perceived a different role for the University as part of the democratisation of public life. Read today, however, his concerns were prescient.

Increasingly, the modern University is central to the knowledge economy and public policies to increase national global competitiveness through the better translation of research into the product cycle. The emphasis is upon applied knowledge – whether that be applied science, applied humanities or applied social studies – and its ‘co-production’ by academics, government and users. The ability of universities to draw upon public funds is increasingly linked to regulatory audit designed to demonstrate transparency. These audit systems, too, are directed toward securing the ‘usefulness’ of knowledge under the demand that publicly-funded knowledge should demonstrate ‘impact’.

These changes are associated with a shift from an elite-based to a mass-based system as an ever higher proportion of young people have been encouraged into higher education in order to develop a highly skilled workforce. The ‘students for democracy’ of the 1960s and 1970s have been re-cast as consumers of education and investors in their own human capital. In the UK, this is central to the Browne Review (http://hereview.independent.gov.uk/hereview/) and its recommendation that the funding of education can be shifted from the public via taxation to graduates paying higher fees.

It has also prepared the way for the UK Government’s proposal to remove all public funding from arts, humanities and social science taught degree courses. It is undoubtedly the case that the economic significance of these subjects is seriously underestimated, but this neglects the wider public value of higher education. These concerns are shared by colleagues in the sciences who criticise the narrowness of the ‘impact agenda’ and its favouring of applied research over basic research  Science is as much a culture as a practice, and it makes significant contributions to our culture alongside its practical significance for the economy. As the UK Campaign for the Public University (http://publicuniversity.org.uk/) argues, “the public university is essential both for cultivating democratic public life and creating the means for individuals to find fulfillment in creative and intellectual pursuits regardless of whether or not they pursue a degree programme”.

However, the consequence of audit culture is for these concerns to be subject to remorseless attrition by public agencies designated to introduce them. Consultations are begun, but the outcome is incorporation and legitimation, as audit mechanisms themselves become ‘co-produced’. In these circumstances, it becomes ‘one size fits all’ and different interest groupings, whether of Universities, (like the Russell Group and the 1994 Group) or of subjects, negotiate to protect their position. In this situation, the interests embodied in the wider system of higher education miss out, as well as those of particular groups of subjects like the arts, humanities and social sciences. Thus, it may be that ‘concentration’ and ‘selectivity’ are necessary to secure certain activities in the natural science, especially those of ‘big science’. There is no equivalent ‘big’ humanities, or ‘big’ social science, from which a similar benefit might derive. Yet our fate is bound together.

Some vice-chancellors believe that the privatization of Universities will free them from Government regulation, but the opposite seems to be the case. Regulation is designed to facilitate the increased market orientation of Universities and, at the same time, market orientation goes hand in hand with increased regulation.

Bill Readings (in his University in Ruins 1996) wrote of the debasement of intellectual language in the co-produced audit culture of mission statements and declarations of excellence. He did not believe that we could turn back from the multiversity to an older idea of the university (and nor did he believe it would be desirable). However, the Multiversity is fast becoming a Monoversity in which the public functions of education for democracy and culture are being displaced. These, for Readings, are essential functions of a university and worthy of public funding. But he was a realist, they are not just worth fighting for, they are a necessity. Neo-liberal monoculture will be a sterile environment for higher education and for public life.

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