What kind of university do we want?

Valuing the imagination (Chapter 3, Ron Barnett)

This post is part of my rolling reflections on what it means to be a university in the 21st century in light of the U.K. Government’s decision to open up tertiary education to even more private providers.

Ron Barnett (2013) argues that current conceptions of the ‘university’ are too narrow because they are based on the model of an entrepreneurial university This model restricts the possibilities of what a university could be because business is an inherently risk-averse venture (in the sense that it will not take risks that could dent its brand image in the eyes of the customer, regardless of whether this ‘dent’ is perceived or actual). This is because business relies exclusively on customer satisfaction in order to justify its very existence; so the question is, can and should universities adopt such a business model and rely on their student-customers to sanction their viability?

I don’t think they can and I don’t think they should. As Athene Donald argues here, ‘a satisfied student-customer is not the same thing as an educated student-customer’. Others have argued in a similar vein.

Ron Barnett therefore imagines the following alternative models (pp. 39-44) to the entrepreneurial university, arguing that we need these alternatives to the  building of a ‘knowledge economy’ if we want “[T]he concepts of critical thought and [of] understanding” to be part of “policy debates” (2013, p. 36):

  • The University of Wisdom: this is a university that has ‘human value’ at its heart, eg. ‘Improving the world’ and ‘heightening well-being’;
  • The Philosophical University: this is a university that takes ‘responsibility’ for the new world order, to help create new concepts, new ideas for a ‘new world’;
  • The University of Dissensus: this is the university in which there is a forum for debate and ‘critical interrogation’ about ‘fundamental issues’;
  • The Metaphysical University: all the above create a sense of ‘a university-for-the-world’ (not simply ‘in’ or ‘of’-the-world) which serves “the wider world through its activities, rooted in inquiry” (p. 40);
  • The Concerned University: this is a university that realises “its imaginative potential neither as an end in itself, nor in the service of money or competitive advantage […] but in the service of the wider good of humanity” (p. 40);
  • The Transluscent University: this is the university that, like a fountain playing, gives ‘delight’ and ‘shimmers in the public space’; it becomes a thing of ‘beauty’, open to the public gaze, and made up of infinite complexity “with droplets intermingling in unpredictable ways” (p.44):
Fountain playing in the public space
Fountain playing in the public space

All of these conceptions need to have imaginative weight (p.41). They need to be rooted in the reality of administrative practices and economic forces, but they also need the critical freedom to ‘strike out’.


This is where Barnett reveals his sympathies with the theories of critical realism (especially the Roy Bhaskar version) claiming that:

critical realism is hard-headed; it believes that there is a real world, with pretty hard and powerful structures. It has a solid ontological component. And it recognises that there are many, perhaps an infinite number of ways, of interpreting the world. It is epistemologically open. This epistemological generosity allows the possibility of critique for it is possible for the world to be other than it is. No matter how firm the social and economic and other structures that are influential in shaping human life, they are far from being solid. Understandings of the world can rightly be informed by values and perceptions as to the possibilities inherent in the world. The two realms – of structures and ideas – are dynamically inter-related

(The bold in the quote is mine to remind myself that this is where my own reasearch plays out, in that ‘inter-related’ bit).

Reference: Barnett, R. (2013) Imagining the University, Routledge







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