What role for university?

In a modern world where everything is contestable, certainty and truth must be abandoned; but seats of learning can help us to cope, says Ronald Barnett
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The Independent Online
Sir Ron Dearing will publish his report on higher education this summer. Appointed by the previous government, but with the support of what has turned out to be a new government, Sir Ron commands respect across the policy-makers. There is broad agreement, too, that higher education presents complex issues - of funding and quality - that need to be addressed calmly, and outside the pressures associated with party politics.

Issues of funding and quality are important, and are of the moment. But unless we ask ourselves two questions, and find answers to them, a debate framed around such issues will fail entirely to secure a higher education adequate for the new century. The two questions are: what is higher education for? And what kind of education should we offer our students, that is going to live up to the purposes we have identified?

Like Robbins in 1963, his predecessor is heading a major inquiry into higher education, Sir Ron, it is understood, has been giving attention certainly to the first of these questions, about the purposes of higher education. In their submissions to Sir Ron's inquiry, too, respondents - from both within and beyond the academic world - addressed the issue, and there was wide agreement that the purposes of higher education should not be framed entirely around narrow, vocational agendas. But what then? Are the wider purposes consonant with economic purposes? Shouldn't we admit that, in the modern world, higher education is just a matter of economic investment, a means of enhancing UK Inc, and that's all?

I believe that this way of looking at higher education - as a contest between human capital and personal development - has to be repudiated. This is for two linked reasons.

First, the modern world is characterised not just by change but also by contestability. It is a world in which economic practices are challenged by alternative conceptions, and by rival views as to what is right. Shareholders dispute management strategies, salaries are scrutinised, global ecological and local environment implications are made manifest and work practices are challenged. In the global economy, the traditions of other cultures demand consideration, even for economic success. A sensitivity to contrasting values and modes of education is called for. At the same time, the information technology revolution produces an instantaneous - and unpredictable - flow of interactive responses across the world.

In other words, in the modern world, values, practices, forms of communication, consumer expectations, ways of presenting oneself and one's responsibilities are uncertain. They are changing, so fast that it is understood in the corporate psyche that all assumptions, in every domain, are contestable. There is no secure ground. The world of work calls for flexibility, adaptability and self-reliance: these are code words for a realisation that effectiveness in the modern world is precisely the capacity to live with contestability.

Secondly, contestability is located in our ways of knowing the world. For the past 800 years, universities have been founded on the belief that knowledge could be secured and truth could be obtained. There is the world, and it is the university's task to help us get to know it: the world, and our knowledge of it. Through critical inquiry, we could gain truthful descriptions of the world. The dominant activities of the Western university - teaching and research - were framed around this viewpoint. However, the modern world, of contested action, self-understanding and values, challenges that conception.

Within the university, new theories of knowledge challenge this view of matching our descriptions of the world to the world itself. We have no independent access to the world outside our theories. We have to live in a world partly of our own making. Post-modernism adds the point that there are, in fact, multiple worlds; there is no universal picture of the world, or even a universal story of our efforts to understand and to act in it.

Beyond the university, the idea that knowledge is wrapped up in our propositions of the world is also challenged. Worthwhile knowledge lies in our professional practices. Tacit knowledge - or process knowledge, as it is called - gives us reliable insight into the world. And the way of improving this knowledge is neither through experiments in the laboratory nor even in reading books, but in action research, "reflective practice" or experiential learning.

The result is that what counts as knowing the world is being widened. The propositional knowledge so prized by the university is no longer the sure route to understanding. On the contrary, we gain much, if not most, worthwhile knowledge by acting in the world.

If there are no fixed points of anchorage in the world, if every practice, value and form of knowledge is contestable, what role is left for the university? It gained its modern legitimacy through imparting reliable knowledge and understanding; but these are no longer available.

There is a new role opening up for the university as we enter the new millennium, but its formulation involves a paradigm shift.

In a world where everything is contestable - in thought and in action - the university can gain a new role for itself by admitting that its raison d'etre is not the discovery and handling of knowledge, but the handling of ignorance. The task that the university performs supremely well is to enable individuals to live in a world in which everything is infinitely contestable. This is precisely the character of the modern world.

This sounds like a much more modest role than the one the university has been accustomed to: understanding and coping with uncertainty, rather than understanding the world in any definite sense. But it is a much larger role.

First, accepting that its forms of knowledge, bound up in the disciplines, are limited, should encourage it more to embrace action-in-the-world. Transferable skills, action research and reflective practice are typical of the genre. Secondly, realising that we are all personally bound up in our efforts to understand the world should prompt the university to pay more heed to their students as people in their own right. Personal reflective diaries, the delineation of one's values and the acquisition of self-reliance in unfamiliar situations would be examples. And, thirdly, recognising that we will act effectively in the world only through collective understanding may suggest that learning could be collaborative in nature. Group projects, structured debates and student-student interaction by means of the Internet can all assist.

A central idea - perhaps the central idea - underpinning the modern Western university is that of critical inquiry. This function is required more than ever but, as is apparent, it has to be reinterpreted. Critical inquiry after knowledge, certainty and even truth has to be abandoned.

However, the modern world requires critical inquiry more than ever, provided that it is collective, is situated in a world of action, provides space for individuals to develop as persons in their own right, and incorporates our multiple understandings of the world. Action, self and knowledge, united in a collective critical inquiry: this has to be the triple basis of the modern university. It is a world without sure knowledge, but it is a world in which the university can be supreme in enabling us to live effectively. In generating uncertainty in its teaching and in its research, the university can enable us to live in just that kind of world that the modern world has becomen

Ronald Barnett is Professor of Higher Education and Dean of Professional Development at the Institute of Education University of London. His latest book, `Higher Education: A critical Business', is published by the Open University Press on 27 June.