Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Minimal University

The universities are grand things, or so they have come to be. The image of an university is constructed not just of manicured lawns and grand buildings, but also of an unhurried lifestyle and leisurely pursuit of sports or intellect or romantic interests. They embody, typically, privilege and power, and getting through the university and earning the credentials have been, and remains, the rite of passage into socially privileged realms.

However, universities have been changing. They were changing as the societies change and knowledge work becomes more common: Suddenly, it was not just the diplomats and the bridge-building engineers who needed Higher Learning, but even a person who merely programmes a desktop computer and lives in a rented flat needed to attend university. The rhetoric of opportunity society, that one will have a fair shot at life's pleasures no matter where s/he comes from, also made universities central to democratic governance and public conversation: This meant more people going to universities, with diverse intentions and levels of aspirations.

Universities in the post-industrial society are therefore no more initiation places for a genteel life, but institutions of hope and productivity, one that equips the workers and sustains democratic participation. It is not for the few, but for most; it is no longer about privilege and power, but productive and expectant life. However, this is why the divergence of the ideal of the university and social expectations around it are most divergent: Clerk Kerr's vision of multi-varsity, a research institution which produces knowledge, hosts scholarly communities and reach out and influence the society through teaching, which shaped thinking about the universities ever since it was formulated, might actually have been outdated before conception. Kerr, just like Newman before him, might have been articulating the highest ideals that an university represented in his time, but an ideal which already came to pass. Indeed, the Kerr's vision influenced the policy-makers and university administrators, and shaped the rhetoric of college-making across the world. However, by this time, the imperatives, both of the policy-makers and the rising middle classes, have changed. 

This creates a mismatch, of vision and required activity, of the institutional aspiration and that of its stakeholders. Indeed, austerity and global recession gives this a crisis dimension, but the need for another university model was created not by the current pressures but the redefined mission of the university. And, the stripped-down version of the university, which is usually associated with profit motive and sneered at, isn't the aberration but possible the new alternative of Kerr's vision, a Minimal University.

Indeed, minimalism isn't consistent with the universality in the concept of the university. But, I shall argue, that the expansive view of the university is a phenomenon rooted in a certain worldview, and wedded to industrial society, and arguably, of the vision of industrial empires. It is the Headquarter of Learning view, which needs the pomp and the grandeur, steeped in mystic and magic, invocation of an imagined medieval aura, an often non-existent heritage and an exclusionary language designed to obfuscate than communicate. But, despite this mystic, the 'barbarians' were indeed knocking at the gates for some time, with their less-than-stellar expectations of 'just a job', a right to live a middle class life of indifferent happiness. This comes to a head as the subsidies stop and one has to turn to private, student contributions towards their education, either in part or full, either through state-sponsored loans or through dipping into family nest eggs.

The Minimal university isn't then just about profit-making, but about keeping the university relevant. Indeed, it is not about stripping all the great universities of their heritage; it is instead about stop the phenomenon of 'Harvard Envy' (a term coined by Andrew Rosen, Kaplan's CEO, which means the ever-upward drive of the universities to add facilities, star professors and other luxurious accessories) and on the other hand, clarifying the expectations and accepting the varieties of the university experience. The top universities will indeed keep doing what they do so well: Produce new knowledge, host communities of scholars and move the communities forward.

However, Minimal University will be designed and serve the rest, and do most of teaching. The Minimal University will do only what the university must do - ensure the standards of learning are appropriate, the students learn meaningfully and have a great experience and that the graduates have the right attributes to become productive workers and contributing citizens. This indeed sounds like the grand scheme of the great visionary, Clark Kerr indeed, just that this part of his vision was never too popular. No one wanted to be minimal, because, academic profession is too concerned about prestige and too little about the service they are expected to render themselves. However, it is in the spirit of service, in minimalism, lies the true heritage of an university, and its real purpose: This is indeed not a For-Profit debasement of the university ideal, but a reconstruction of the original idea and to bring it up to date with time.

At the time when the cost of university education is spiralling out of control, and the universities are failing to provide Hope that its constituents so desperately needs, the Minimal University needs a serious consideration. This thinking is at the heart of what we are building, re-purposing Open software and Open Content, using the existing infrastructure and facilities, connecting the dots between different accreditation agencies and country regulators. This may sound modest, even unambitious, but it is centred around the idea that works and enables, one that gives hope and confidence and not a life of indebtedness, one that frees rather than burdens one with a lifetime of pretension, one that's fit for our age of democratic meritocracy. In short, I believe, it is an idea whose time has indeed come.   

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