Here I am, in the middle of Chapter 3 of my PhD thesis, excited to be writing and challenged by just how hard this is. I write a lot for my work, and I’ve written a lot during my career and study. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to synthesise, to make sense of disparate concepts and to write about them in ways that will make sense to others. The last thing I thought would challenge me in this PhD was the writing.
The PhD is a particular beast though, and even though it’s a piece of writing that doesn’t get read by many people, it has pretty clear requirements about content and style. It matters to me that it is well written and that it makes sense. And it’s not the writing per se; it is what exactly are the dots that I’m trying to connect? I have this very clear story in my head that I want to tell through my writing. My supervisor tells me it’s a good story but most people look at me blankly when I tell them the story about contested ideas the university. It’s a bit like ‘why would you want to study that?’
It took me a while to have the answer to that question: because the university that I studied in during the 1970s was a special place, a unique place, where I was let free to learn, to challenge my mind. Where there was this idea that the mind was a valuable thing to cultivate, that it was important to learn how to think … that the university - or at least the people in it - had this belief in itself that was unwavering, this intangible, constructed, deeply held belief in the social value of a university. This sense, this feeling of the university may have developed in my mind because I was in the first cohort at Griffith University, a new university, finding its way, treating us as equal partners (almost) in the learning process. It was a special time for me, and a special place to be in at that time of my life. It isn’t like that now.
I know now that the 1970s was a period of push back by the universities to the incursions of society, a battle they lost in the 1980s and that has left us with the neoliberal university today. The university has always been a chameleon, able to adapt to the needs of its societies - but that adaption was once grounded in self-definition by the university, and now the power to say ‘this is what we do and you can’t tell us what to do’ is long gone. That traditional idea that embedded itself in my psyche at Griffith is not yet gone though - it’s still with us as the neoliberal university and its managerial idea continue to create a new position that the university can adapt to but not control. It’s an idea that might be undone though as society now debates whether it actually needs a university in the 21st century.
There’s still an idea though. Maybe not Newman’s idea, maybe not quite the university that von Humboldt wanted, and it’s a university that’s lost Kant’s battle to ensure philosophy as a discipline had a future, but there’s still a university with us.
The real focus of my thesis is whether or now the contested ideas we have now are both enabling and constraining its possible futures. My future for the university has such as institution but there’s no guarantee. The university no longer has an assumed certain future no matter how many people think that the world can’t do without this particular organisation form. I can find many possible futures for the university in the present but only one is privileged. Only one is dominant. It’s the one where there’s a sort of neoliberal nirvana even though the world that created it won’t exist in the long term in the form we have it today. It’s the future that is assumed in today’s discourse but that has a strong academic resistance movement trying to undermine it - a movement that only recently understood that it had lost one battle and it was time to rewrite the rules of the game for the next one.
And there from left field, comes another possible future for the university - one in which it doesn’t exist. It’s not one that many people have recognised yet though, so caught up are they in the battle between the traditional and managerial ideas.
Many writers over time have argued that there is no useful concept called ‘the idea of the university’. That the university has always been too disparate as an organisation to be unified in a cultural sense. I wonder though what else might have sustained this belief and faith in the social value of a university since the western university was established in Bologna in 1088? And if there is no idea, why do we care so much about its future?
These are the dots I’m trying to connect in my writing. Wish me good luck :)