For a future university

The ratcheting stresses of economic injustice and a tangibly deteriorating global environment are fuelling populism, fascism, and fundamentalism across the planet. I believe that we are on the cusp of a serious struggle to define and defend the values and methods of education as our planet slides into a complex crisis that will be far more severe than most of us can easily comprehend. The World Bank made it very clear in a 2019 report: ‘ There is growing agreement between economists and scientists that the tail risks are material and the risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change, including, in the extreme, human extinction’ (p.11).

With the recent forced relocation of Central European University from Budapest to Vienna, the continuing pattern of harassment and intimidation at Jawaharlal Nehru University (here and here), the Trumpist attack on universities in the USA, and the slow crushing of intellectual and student culture in the PRC and now Hong Kong, we can see clearly a developing threat to the liberal arts university. All of these universities were attacked as part of overtly nationalist government projects in Hungary, India, the USA and the PRC respectively. While the cosmopolitan and critical project of universities has been a frequent target of intolerant and insecure political regimes in whatever country, these are nations that contributed powerfully to the international ideals of liberal arts education as it evolved across the 20th and 21st century. There has been significant local and internationally networked outrage and resistance—academics have circulated  petitions across international networks and universities and their allies have mounted court cases—but the threat to universities from their own governments is now a feature of the most developed nation-states in the 21st century.

These blunt external threats flow together with a long-term, thorough and deliberate corrosion of universities as primarily institutions for learning and research, undertaken as part of late capitalism. Almost all universities worldwide now fully participate in the neoliberal university paradigm, even small regional Minorities universities in rural China. It is precisely this commodification of students and researchers flowing internationally that Trump correctly saw as a vulnerability that he could target when he wanted to attack the university sector in the USA. From the side of the academics and students, this was perceived as a crass attack, in a rare moment of legal and political advancement for Black people, on the inherent dignity of internationally mobile students (who are, as one academic pertly observed, are “mostly brown or black”). For university administrators, however, this was simply a further threat to income streams and an insult to their autonomy by an incompetent buffoon who threatens any number of international capitalist processes and projects.

The rot is profound; in friendly (!) conversations with middle-level managers in UK universities, I have heard the academics and researchers described as “parasites” and “aphids” that need to be “milked” by the industrious “ants” of the administration in order for the university to succeed. In less friendly contexts—a required management training seminar, in fact—I have been publicly shouted at by a heating plant manager on the same programme for suggesting that my PhD and research training actually did give me some unusually good tools with which to analyse social and economic relations. (My academic colleagues afterwards pointed out that these shared management training programmes were often very hostile to academics, perhaps as part of trying to undermine academic solidarity among academic staff being groomed for management. I dropped out. ) The political attacks will get worse as political polarisation is sharpened by diminishing resources, disasters, and increasing economic disparity. The academic freedom of universities and education generally will be increasingly constrained, and the `business case’ for further disenfranchising academics will become ever stronger.

What I have written so far is not particularly startling reading for most academics, though it may be grim reading for students looking to attend university. The threat to universities, I think, is far worse than this; the material context that has led us to this point, where universities can only be imagined as profitable businesses, is collapsing and the impending crisis will destroy the modern university as we know it. If we do not re-imagine the university, its social and economic form and its material basis, then the university as a kind of institution will arrive at an evolutionary dead end and expire.

We are seeing, right now, how one relatively mild zoonotic outbreak event (it could have been worse, and there will be more: see here, here and here) has created unsolvable challenges for many universities, and the response has in most cases been to move much teaching online. There are serious risks here for academics, who are further commodified and marginalised, especially as university administrators panic in the face of collapsing enrollments, loss of international students, and the sorts of political attack I described above. The move to online teaching actually makes the whole university more fragile and vulnerable to further shocks. For example, where universities (and indeed, local education authorities) have bought into a cloud-based plan that requires extensive access to remote data centres, they are implicitly trusting the security of the global data communications hardware. Yet subsea cables and data networks are highly vulnerable both to rapid environmental change (sea level rise, storms, overheating surges) and to bad politics. This question of infrastructure can be extended; we hear in the UK how universities are investing in physical plant and prestige buildings—but how much of that investment takes into account worst-case predictions for sea level rise over the next hundred years? The University of Aberdeen, for example, will be a vulnerable seafront campus quite soon (but so also Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, London, Glasgow…). Not every region or city will invest in sea defenses; many will choose strategic retreat. Even where the physical plant of the university is not threatened by actual sea level rise the social, political and economic upheaval will be far greater than most of us—insurance modellers and defence specialists aside—can imagine.

For universities outwith the industrialised countries of the global North, these sorts of infrastructural challenges are part of business as usual. In Bangladesh, for example, students often use mobile phones to access the internet and a political crisis can lead to a country-wide shutdown of internet services. Useful access to libraries means access to stable texts that don’t require an internet connection to be used: PDFs or physical texts. Forms of knowledge commodification for profit that depend on stable high-speed internet (such as e-lending or online journal access) simply don’t work. Flooding from cyclones and king tides is miserable but not surprising. Faculty and students share tools such as Sci-Hub and Library Genesis in the struggle to teach and learn, and accept political or climate disruption as part of the ordinary. These are the crucibles in which a future university will be forged, a university that adapts to rapid ecological and political change and creates students who grasp, deeply, the sickening contradictions between real life in the majority world and the expectations set by an inappropriate and oppressive model of education. Yet the funders, the administrators, and the parents who send their children to these universities all aspire to a “real” university — that is, a fully neoliberal university in the Global North — which somehow is still held to be the inheritor of a numinous set of inspiring values that somehow create the comforts and wealth of that world.

The question is:  what ought we to save from the liberal arts university model as the global crisis worsens? Are there any universal values of education that are worth protecting for future generations? What models are there that we can build from now, while we have the time to develop new forms?

For example, here’s an ideal type:  residential institutions combining libraries and parklands that adapt as circumstances change, that shun exploitative models of learning, that actively seek out poorly represented communities and unheard voices, that honour and transmit a diverse bundle of intellectual and moral traditions even when they seem useless, and that embody, foster and protect diversity, curiosity, and skill among the students and faculty who gather there. (But implicit in this vision is a great degree of privilege, land-ownership, and patronage: where do those come from?)

Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan

Here’s another ideal type: humble colleges, co-operatives comprised of scholars who accept as a precondition of the scholarly life that they will never be wealthy, never own land—indeed, perhaps that they will be bound by something like clerical orders, though most certainly not male or celibate. The collegiality of universities is greatly enhanced by kinship clusters among the faculty! Given the bleak material conditions of the not-too-near future, this might not be so bad. A network of smaller, self-sufficient communities which uphold the virtues of poverty, modesty, curiosity, anti-dogmatism, freedom from political involvement, and open access for all students might just endure the prolonged environmental, social, and political disruptions we face over the next centuries and shield the torch of learning through brutal storms. They would no doubt rapidly become corrupt and complicit in local politics, but if there were a compelling set of orders, a well-articulated virtuous model, and a healthy mistrust of authority…they might be able to renew themselves and transmit the ideals of learning in a wide range of contexts.

Universities are not that old; the first universities were the Buddhist monastic universities of South Asia, such as Nālandā and Takṣaśīla, about 1500 years ago. When those cosmopolitan institutions were systematically wiped out (see Verardi’s The Gods and the Heretics for a clear description of how and why), the educational centres of the Islamic caliphates were able to guarantee the continuity of diverse collaborations around the pursuit of knowledge; and in turn, the great European universities took on that role, both in Europe and in the colonies.

Sadly, although East Asia had remarkable Confucian learning institutions, they never became nurseries for diversity and curiousity; rather, they preserved the privileges of a highly conservative, but effective, educated civil service. In the North Atlantic region, a dual process of (1) capture by elites and (2) technocratic planning by states anxious to ensure a supply of skilled but docile workers has undercut the ability of universities to act as laboratories for necessary change. They, too, have mostly become devices for reproducing class stratification (privilege in some cases, subordination in others). The vast array of ersatz colleges and university programmes targeting overseas students and immigrants is a key part of this stratification.

Now, to be a bit pompous:

-> insofar as ‘liberal humanism’ acts as a cover for imposing North Atlantic ideologies of knowledge among Indigenous or colonized communities, and stunts the growth of epistemological and ontological diversity;

-> to the extent that the inherent Eurocentrism and human exceptionalism of liberal humanism drive the current ecological disaster through ideologies of extraction, marketing and consumption;

-> and so far as liberal humanism diverts or numbs the necessary critique and transformation of capitalism and the excruciating economic inequalities that are driving our present ecological and social crisis, and blocks the necessary rapid shift to degrowth and systemic transformation of human society

— then we must abandon and condemn liberal politics and liberal humanism. The old ideals of human dominion, the nation-state, capitalism within regulations, and liberal democracy as a reliable engine that guarantees rights and stems political excesses, simply aren’t adequate to the challenges we face as a planet. They have failed. A criminal political class that cares nothing for the survival of life past the lifespan of its own absurdly privileged human actors now dominates the planet. If ‘liberal’ ideology enables this terracide then it should be exposed and cast out.

Yet I hold out hope for the liberal arts model in education, quite separate from these other liberal ideologies. To be honest, I am unable to see why the word “liberal” is applied to both, but I suspect that others in tradition of Arendt or Berlin may see some thread there I cannot.  The best liberal arts education is brutally critical and transformative, hopelessly idealistic, and eminently practical. It is also plural and incoherent, and welcomes that irreducible diversity as a source for creativity.  Whether the subject being studied is genetics, politics, engineering or literature, the teachers flip their classrooms, the students and teachers take to the streets and forests, and intense debates around material and ideological bases, moral purposes, and adequate methods break out like wildfires. It often takes root in revolutionary or marginalised venues, such as the Flying University in Poland, Śāntinikeṭan in India, or even AUW in Chittagong. Its physical spaces and epistemic networks (classrooms, dormitories, colleges, libraries, theatres, campus canteens, research exchanges) constitute irreplaceable networks for incubating and developing effective transformations, including the movements against injustice and ecocide that we desperately need right now.

That creativity, when it becomes productivity, is always at risk of being captured by commodification as has happened across the UK higher education sector, where profit drives the creation and closure of academic programmes, or as happened when digital technologies allowed the big four publishers to monopolise academic publishing. It is equally vulnerable to corrupt politics and violence: beat, imprison, or kill enough scholars (students or professors) and the vivacious networks will wither. But there are countermovements: the open access publishing movement is mercurial and spreading too fast for the profiteers to recapture control.

To all of this, which is really just summarising and repeating the obvious, I want to add something particular. There are thousands of profit-making businesses in the guise of universities opening up all over Asia and Africa (and in the developed world): they sell status and immigration points, but nothing more. There are also, however, genuine universities popping up. I have only encountered a few of these but they do exist. In this post-colonial world, they are revalidating different traditions of cosmopolitan learning; they are drawing explicitly on multiple cultural sources and value frames to build transformative institutions. At the same time, they are trapped by the necessities of local politics and the visions of funders into reproducing traditional models of the university.

Taking up my example of the residential ideal above: The question of the physical plant for such a university is important, and not well understood I think. For example, any long-term campus university planned now must be completely sustainable, and that means no cars and no car parking; it means that energy, water and waste have to be self-sufficient, and quite possibly food as well. That could mean that the total campus requires a healthy forest and soil system, and the built campus could only be 10-15% of the total land area. It also means that it has to be built well above present sea level. No university in the developing world that I know has taken on board these challenges, and that’s just the physical plant — and of course, any estate of that kind would be a very tempting target in a time of political instability. Alternatives might include multiple campuses, a ‘floating’ university, or a caravan/ship campus that rotated across a number of different sites over the course of a year.

We can rephrase the original question: How do we frame a set of values and requirements for a university that is intended not just to weather the worst crisis human civilisation has ever faced, but to critically understand, transform, embody and transmit those values so that civilisation itself ceases to be a cause of ecological catastrophes and becomes, in some small parts, an engine for repairing the world and discovering a humbler, more constructive role for our species on this planet? The question in itself implies certain values that I think are core to the project. Although the liberal arts model was framed within a theological and philosophical tradition that presumed human exceptionalism, our first principle must allow us to step outside that lethal ideology. The new university must accept that knowledge is made up from a diversity of practices and perspectives that exceeds any human system. Humans are themselves holobionts, and our university must learn, teach, and reproduce itself through time as a community of holobionts, fully aware of and responsible to ecosystems within, among, and beyond ourselves.

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