The popular perception of the University today involves notions of hierarchies of knowledge distribution and centres of excellence. The University is also regarded as a space where the values of social equality and mobility allegedly are reproduced, carrying the traces of sentiments such as those in which education is seen as a social good, a preparation for public life and civic responsibility.1 However, despite this general conception, students may look to a University for material, that is, career advantages, lecturers believe that universities are for critical inquiry and self-development2 (at least in Europe and America), and managers see it as a business enterprise and replicate the economic strategies of neo-liberalism.3 None of these conceptions sit very well together. In fact, they conflict sharply. The pressing question then is, What is a University?
There are of course very different institutional models at play when we speak of ‘the University’, such as those that are privately or publicly funded, or research versus teaching institutions, and so on. However, the question of what constitutes a University is pressing, primarily (but not exclusively) due to the context of the changed economic conditions to publicly funded institutions and that today the University has been economically decoupled from the state in the UK (and the USA). This research responds specifically to the conditions of the University in the UK. The role and purpose of the institution has shifted from its Enlightenment objectives (state sponsorship of the formation of critical citizens, seen as a social good) to a complex commercial enterprise aimed at producing ‘knowledge capital’ (i.e., intellectual property) (Anderson and Rossi 2010) and economically productive consumers (McGettigan 2013).
While it is too soon to gauge the consequences of this repurposing of higher education, where knowledge, the institution, and persons (including students’ financial debts), are rationalised and commodified to meet the needs of capital flows and global corporate industries, Gerald Raunig’s metaphor of a ‘factory of knowledge’ may be useful here to frame the problem anew. He declares that ‘What was once the factory is now the university’ (Raunig 2013: 24); by this he means that the institution not only replicates the embodied subservience to a ‘machine’ – that is, the University as an apparatus ‘supporting authorities’ and an ‘accommodation to subjugation’ (2013: 25) – it is also a space in which solidarity and resistance to subservience is realised and takes form. He continues, arguing that the University is not simply ‘a site of the transfer of knowledge, but rather [...] a complex space of the overlapping of the most diverse forms of cognitive, affective, subservient labour’ (ibid.: 24). He speculates that as a space of ‘modulation’ the University is potentially a site that can be ‘re-territorialized’ into a space of resistance to the production of its own disciplinary regime (ibid.: 23–24), and, in so doing, asks us ‘to consider the transformations of contemporary modes of production as a condition for the emergence of the modulating university, or more generally, the fact that the adaptive capacity of capitalism has taken over precisely the central characteristics of these struggles, in order to flexibly immunize and newly position itself’ (ibid.: 25). Such are the challenges that are in play within the (UK) University today and that bear heavily on the reality of one’s membership and participation.
The ‘What is a University?’ project sets out to explore what it might mean to ‘reterritorialise’ the idea of a University. That is, what are the affective outcomes – the lived experiences – of the transformation of the University, rather than the material (or immaterial) outcomes of its directed commercial production? In this sense, the project investigates how people who are immersed in the activities of a University imagine and conceptualise the idea of it. What are their affective relations to it as a space that is increasingly commodified and instrumentalised? How do members instigate and enforce the boundaries of participation and reproduce social hierarchies? And exactly how do students, professors, and other members come to embody the objectives of commercial production, operating as part of a ‘service’ industry with a managerial rationale borrowed from the business models of corporate capitalism? These questions are woven into a series of collaborative projects that were developed between 2010 and 2013. By working empirically, the aim is to sample and map the aesthetic experience and perceptions of a University’s members. The point was not to arrive at an answer per se, but to investigate the affective operations – the lived experience – of the University in transition and to problematise its conditions.
The three interventions that were developed are called (1) ‘Researching the Researchers’, (2) ‘National Student Surveys’, and (3) ‘Citizen Artist News, Special Edition: Investigating the University as a Border Regime’. By way of a brief explanation of the use of the word intervention: the term is used variously within academic circles and in continental Europe (as opposed to the UK); it can be used to describe the presentation of a research paper within a symposium, workshop, or conference, etc. In these instances, intervention denotes a routine practice and habit of public academic discourse. However, the approach to the intervention as instantiated within this research follows Jacques Rancière's notion of ‘dissensus’ and Harold Garfinkel’s work in ethnomethodology. The idea is to disturb or intervene in a setting or space to expose normative beliefs and assumptions that mask an adherence (or adaptation) to the apparatus of the University in its new and unfolding role as a corporate business. The focus is on empirical research practices – that is, ‘doing’ rather than ‘objectifying’ the object of study. The interventions are ‘“ways of doing and making” that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as the relationship they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility’, as Rancière suggests (2004: 13).
The interventions were developed and executed in collaboration with four students: Anna Kaufmann (Erasmus programme, 2011), Ilia Rogatchevski, Mandi Collett, and Dovile Alseikaite, now all successful graduates (2013) of the BA (Hons) Book Arts & Design programme at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. I am indebted to them for giving their time so generously to this project.
1 See Bill Readings’s book The University in Ruins (1996), in which he outlines the influence of the German Idealists on the development of the modern University and the role that the University played in shaping the ‘citizen’, ‘community’, and ‘national culture’ within the burgeoning nation states of Europe and America.
2 William Talcott outlines the shift in the emphasis on citizenship within the University, from being aimed at fostering 'moral education and civic responsibility' in the nineteenth century to a focus on 'research' and personal development in the early 20th century. As he says: “New, more private and scientific notions of citizenship were gradually eclipsing the collegiate emphasis on moral character. Ostensibly handing the task of character development to secondary and lower schools, the university became more concerned with technical expertise, scientific research and professional development.” (2005, p.2) He goes on to quote Benjamin Barber: “by the end of World War II, higher education had begun to professionalize, vocationalise, and specialize in a manner that occluded its civic and democratic mission.” (Barber, Benjamin (1997) Forward to Education for Citizenship. Reeher and Cammarano, eds. Rowman and Littlefield.)
3 David Harvey in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism offers a clear and sharp distinction between the economic strategies that have been exercised by multinational corporations and banks since 1970 and the ‘values’ that have proliferated in the wake of these changes. Harvey argues that the former has been the primary driver of changes to our social and political landscape. The adoption of neo-liberal economic strategies by universities’ managers and the impact on the culture and values of the University is discussed by Bill Readings in his book The University in Ruins.