Manifesto for the University of the Future

IMG_6216Summary

Recent decades have seen the comprehensive marketization of our universities. Knowledge has come to be treated as a commodity and education as a sector of the service industry. The principles and metrics of the market have been imposed through increasingly aggressive forms of state regulation. The damage this is doing to our universities is ever more apparent, and already well documented. What we so far lack, however, is an alternative vision for what our universities should be. To provide a focus for resistance and reform, such a vision is urgently needed. In what follows, we present a manifesto for the universities of the future.

The manifesto reaffirms the purpose of universities and calls for a reform of their ethos and organisation. It establishes the four foundational principles on which the universities of the future should be built. These are:

  • Freedom. Academic freedom is not a privilege to enjoy but a task we have always to work at. Freedom entails both risk and responsibility: the risk of relinquishing the comfort of established positions and of pushing out into the unknown; the responsibility of care we owe to our students, to the wider community, and to the environment.
  • Trust. There can be no scholarship without trust. It is the foundation for both academic professionalism and collegiality. It also underpins our relations with students. The structures of the university should seek to foster trust by striving for fairness and consistency, rather than undermining it through practices of surveillance and control.
  • Education. Education is an open-ended process of intellectual growth and discovery. It covers the practices of both research and teaching. Research is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding through practices of curiosity and care. In teaching we immerse students in an educational environment dedicated to this pursuit, and join with them in their endeavours.
  • Community. The university is its people: its scholars, students, staff and alumni. Together they form not just one community but a collection of smaller communities, which may organise themselves in different ways. It is the task of university leaders to nurture this diversity, while remaining committed to the greater community and to its core values of wisdom, tolerance and humanity.

Our universities occupy a unique position in society. No other institutions exists to nurture the conversations, among people of different nations and to design and plan solutions on which our collective futures depend. None is better placed to forge the knowledge, develop the connections and educate the citizens that will help to bring these futures about. Our universities bear a unique responsibility for the planet and for coming generations. We cannot do without them. Only by reaffirming our purpose, principles and ethos can we construct the universities of the future.

THE MANIFESTO

§1. We, scholars, students, staff and alumni of UK Universities, call for fundamental reform of the principles, ethos and organisation of our universities, in order (1) that they can be restored to the community to which they belong and (2) that they can fulfil their civic purpose in a manner appropriate to our times, in the defence of democracy, peaceful coexistence and human flourishing.

§2. We stand at a pivotal moment in the long history of UK Universities, a fork in the path that offers two ways forward. One is to follow the business model of higher education to its logical conclusion, in a competition for students, research funding and ratings that values constant change as an end in itself. The other is to rediscover the civic purpose of the university as a necessary component of the constitution of a democratic society, with the responsibility for educating its citizens and furnishing them with the wisdom and understanding that will enable them to fashion a world fit for future generations to live in.

§3. Under current regimes, universities have committed themselves to a managerial dystopia sculpted by discredited metrics. Not only does this business vision contravene the university’s duty, as a charitable institution, to disseminate knowledge for the public benefit; it also overlooks its primary responsibility for education and scholarship. To take the civic route will require a complete alteration of course. It will mean rebuilding the university from its very foundations. Whether we participate in the community as students, as researchers and teachers, or as administrative or support staff, we are here to promote truth, justice, virtue, liberty and sustainability. The kind of university we want is one in which these principles are both thought and taught.

§4. In our universities we will:

  • Create an environment for free, open-minded and unprejudiced debate, which stands out as a beacon of wisdom, tolerance and humanity.
  • Defend our freedom to undertake research and teaching in the pursuit of truth, against the constraints, both internal and external to the institution, which threaten to curtail it.
  • Restore the trust that underpins both professionalism and collegiality, by removing the conditions of aggressive line and performance management, and of surveillance, which lead to its erosion.
  • Bring together research and teaching as complementary aspects of an education that carries a responsibility of care.
  • Abstain from the egregious language of business that would divide the university between ‘employers’, ‘employees’ and ‘customers’.
  • Restore the governance of the university, and control over its affairs, to the community of scholars, students, staff and alumni to which it rightfully belongs.
  • Ensure that we bequeath a liveable planet to future generations by designing plans for the the survival of the society we serve and, as a consequence, universities themselves.

The university and its purpose

§5. The primary civic purpose of universities, in a democratic society, is to educate future generations of citizens and to forge the knowledge needed to sustain a just and prosperous world. The university is a place where people of integrity, from all nations, gather in order to learn to think, and think deeply, about the nature of things, about the ways we live, about truth and justice, peace and conflict, freedom and responsibility, the distribution of wealth, health and sustainability, beauty and virtue. They learn to weigh these thoughts against the evidence of experience, and to translate them into policy and practice, systems of law and governance, as well as great works of science, literature and art. These things are the foundations of civilised life. Our university will be a place in which they can be incubated and nurtured.

§6. The university is a centre of academic life. The days when the academy was an ivory tower, wherein intellectual pursuits could be enjoyed in isolation from the practical conduct of life, have long gone. Today’s world exists on the edge of climatic and environmental catastrophe. Not only are people and ideas moving and meeting on an unprecedented scale, but the colonial hierarchies of knowledge that propped up the academy in former times have largely imploded. The rise, in their place, of competing economic, political and religious fundamentalisms poses a grave threat to democracy and coexistence and in the longer term to humanity itself. In this increasingly dangerous situation, the academy has a new and pivotal role to play. It is to create and sustain a safe, ecumenical environment of freedom of expression, in which ideas matter, where plans can be made and in which there is room for experiment and dissent, and for open-minded, unprejudiced debate. In our universities we will create such an environment.

§7. Our universities are not businesses. Their goals are academic and extend far beyond the commercial to embrace all facets of society. Universities are here to foster inquiry, not to extract profit. We are motivated in our scholarship not by incentives of financial gain but by the pride we take in our educational and scholarly work. We are driven by a quest for truth and a passion for learning. Our ambition for our universities is not that they should be ranked above others in terms of quantitative indices of performance or productivity, but that it should stand out as a beacons of wisdom, tolerance and humanity. These are our core values. They are moral and ethical, not instrumental, and cannot be measured on any scale. They rest on four pillars. These are freedom, trust, education and community. Below, we spell out what they mean.

 

Freedom

§8. Though we speak of academic freedom, this is not a freedom reserved exclusively for academics. It is not the privilege of a scholarly elite, absolving them of any burden of care. It is neither a form of immunity, nor a refuge. It offers no protection, nor can we hide behind it. On the contrary, academic freedom is a form of exposure. It rests upon a willingness to relinquish the comfort of established positions, to take the risk of pushing out into the unknown, where outcomes are uncertain and destinations yet to be mapped.

§9. Academic freedom is exemplary. In everything they do, academics in our universities seek to live to the fullest extent a freedom that, in a democratic society, is available to every citizen. Thus academic freedom is not distinct from the freedom of the citizen; it is an intensification of that freedom. No more than the freedom of the citizen, is academic freedom handed to us on a plate. It is a task that falls to us, not an unqualified right to which we are entitled, and we have continually to work at it, whether in our teaching, in our research or in our scholarship. We perform freedom, and thereby exemplify it, in our relations with students, with colleagues and with society at large. It is always work in progress; we can never give up on it and assume that it has been achieved. Academic freedom can never be taken for granted.

§10. The freedom we seek in our universities, and wish to defend, is one that confers upon the imagination the right to roam, without fear or favour, unhindered by predetermined aims and objectives. But this right also carries personal, moral and professional responsibilities. We are responsible to our students and to our host communities, and in the widest sense, we are responsible for the direction our societies take. More than any other sector of society, we have the collective expertise, analytical skills and connections required to support and guide others; especially where this requires understanding of uncertainty and perspective. We have to trust that members of our academic community, whatever their rank or status, will exercise their freedom wisely. There can be no freedom without trust. Loss of trust is the greatest enemy of academic freedom since it leads to the replacement of autonomy and self-determination with surveillance and control.

§11. Academic freedom is the life-blood of our universities. It has to be sustained against multiple threats. Unaccountable regimes of management, monitoring and assessment are currently placing severe constraints on what can be researched or taught, on how work should be presented or published, and on intellectual priorities. These constraints are particularly acute for younger scholars, for whom employment and promotion prospects depend upon compliance. Some constraints, of necessity, are imposed from outside our institutions; from government or funding councils over which we have little or no control. By evelating external constraints as internal organising principles, we abdicate our responsibilities to the wider scholarly community to defend the freedom on which the proper conduct of academic life depends. In our university, we will restore the freedom of the academic community to govern itself, above all through the re-empowerment of University Senates.

Trust

§12. Academics are professionals. They joined universities on the strength of their professional accreditation and competence. This professionalism carries with it an expectation of trust. In our universities we will trust academic staff to perform their duties responsibly, with personal and ethical integrity, and in a spirit of service to the community and to the public good. But trust also implies collegiality. Not only do we depend on colleagues to play their part, we also grant them the autonomy to do so. Trust rests on this combination of autonomy and dependency. It is fundamental to scholarship.

§13. As universities we aspire to the highest professional and scholarly standards. We will promote and encourage in one another the attainment of these standards, under the authority of University Senates or other shared governance. We acknowledge the risk that individuals will not always live up to the standards expected of them. In our university we will put transparent protocols in place to deal with mistakes and failures if they occur. We will not however assume that errors are bound to occur unless such protocols are applied, or that their application is a necessary condition for success. We trust that for the most part, they will not be needed. We are confident that in flourishing communities of scholarship, colleagues will look after one another, and that by maintaining collegial commitment, high professional standards will be upheld without the need to have them continually inspected and monitored.

§14. Trust does not arise of its own accord. It has to be nurtured. It is nurtured by openness and honesty, by matching stated intentions with actions, by striving for fairness and consistency, and by learning from mistakes. Trust calls for personal investment, and sometimes entails setting aside immediate advantage for the sake of the community. The individual costs of doing so are more than offset by collective benefits that trust brings to the day-to-day conduct of academic life. Nevertheless, trust that has taken time to build up can quickly be broken down. It is broken down, above all, by the impositions of what is increasingly known as ‘management’.

§15. Many kinds of management have the potential to erode trust, including aggressive outcomes-based ‘line management’ and ‘performance management’. Line management can undermine both professionalism and collegiality when it redirects the responsibility and loyalty of members of staff from the community of colleagues who share a love of their subject and work together in teaching it, to an organisational superior who neither knows the subject nor is accountable to the community. Performance management undermines professionalism in assuming that scholars are not motivated by a desire to advance knowledge in their fields but are responsive only to threats and incentives issued by managers. It undermines collegiality in attaching these threats and incentives to targets that bear no relation to the contribution that individuals make to the communities of scholarship and the wider responsibilities to society that academics hold. Behind coercive line and performance management lies the premise that staff cannot be trusted to perform of their own accord, to the best of their ability. Both are instruments not of support but of control.

§16. The principle of trust applies not only to academic staff. It also applies to students. Students come to our universities because they are eager to join with us in our scholarly endeavours and because we hope they will carry the torch of learning to future generations. We trust that they will do their best, according to their abilities. We are convinced that the legitimate aspirations of students are optimally served by demonstrating, in principle and practice, that learning and scholarship are rewarding in themselves, rather than by defining their education as a regime of testing, geared only to the achievement of measurable results, and implemented through procedures of assessment and verification based on the pretext that students are less than conscientious.

Education

§17. Universities are, by definition, institutions of higher education. By education we mean an open-ended process of intellectual growth and discovery. In our universities, education covers the activities of both research and teaching. These are inseparable; there cannot be one without the other.

§18. Research is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Though boundaries may vary depending upon a scholar’s discipline or philosophy, the call for understanding is the same for all. At its heart, research is an aspiration: it is about trying to get things right, whether empirically, conceptually, ethically or aesthetically. Research suspends prejudice, and turns all certainty into questioning. It means to search and search again. Thus research converts every closure into an opening, and every apparent end-point into a new beginning. It is the guarantor that scholarship can carry on. This is why research is a primary responsibility of the academy.

§19. Under the current framework of evaluation, the meaning of research has been corrupted beyond recognition. It has become a game, in which universities and their academic personnel are players. It no longer has to do with critical scholarship and is instead defined by its products, the values of which are measured by conformity to uniform standards of assessment rather than by any appeal to truth. It entails the collection of ‘data’ and their processing into ‘outputs’ which, in their application, could have measurable ‘impact’. Such a production-line conception may have its place in corporate industry where innovation’s costs are closely linked to value on a monetary scale. In our universities, however, research will be driven by curiosity – by the burning desire to find things out. It will be driven by the desire to care for and share knowledge with multiple branches of society; to interact seamlessly with industry, the arts, legal, government and the public sector to name a few. Most importantly, we aim to use our analytical skills and knowledge to generate plans that match the scale of the environmental challenges we collectively face. A central part of this responsibility will be the education of the next generation of citizens in the intellectual, moral, ethical and practical skills they will need.

§20. In our universities, the nurturing of care and curiosity will be equally true of our teaching. Since research turns all answers into questions, it cannot be taught as if the questions were already answered. Truth is never given in advance; it is rather a horizon of attainment that ever exceeds our reach. It is not therefore available for transmission, as is implied by models that measure teaching and learning by the achievement of predetermined outcomes. There can be no such outcomes, beyond training in skills of so superficial a nature that their transfer can be achieved and assessed through the completion of tick-box exercises. Teaching is not about the transmission of pre-existent knowledge; it is about guiding students in journeys of growth and self-discovery that they necessarily undertake together.

§21. These are often difficult journeys without fixed end-points, in which both teachers and learners participate. It is the job of a teacher to help and inspire students, to stretch their imaginations, to confront uncertainty, not to make things easy for them. A good teacher is exemplary in the conduct of scholarship, a generous guide and companion for students, and a tireless critic of their work. It is in this sense that teaching, in our university, will be research-led. This does not mean that students receive their knowledge at first rather than second hand. It means, rather, that students will be immersed from the start in an educational environment that is dedicated to a critical search for understanding and knowledge.

§22. Generosity, open-endedness and criticality are fundamental to all education, whether in teaching or research. But this is not how education is understood by current regimes of university management. In succumbing to the market-driven rhetoric of teaching and learning with its calculus of milestones and measurable outcomes, and in divorcing research as the production of new knowledge from teaching as its dissemination, universities have badly distorted their educational mission. Learning is increasingly reduced to the smooth and painless acquisition of information, an efficient process that enables students to obtain good grades with minimal effort and leave as satisfied customers. Teachers, then, become little more than facilitators, tasked with assembling the information to be acquired and delivering it in user-friendly form.

§23. In our universities, we will refuse to regard the provision of higher education as a service industry. We will treat our students neither as customers nor as consumers of the ‘experiences’ we provide. Marketing courses, selling experience and inducing satisfaction are not, in themselves, educational objectives. We aim to recruit and retain students with ambitions to study and to learn, whatever their means and background. We will respect these ambitions and will support students in their fulfilment. Our task is to give students the intellectual tools and the critical confidence to address the challenges of the contemporary world, not simply to provide them with a passport for future employment and debt relief. In our universities, policies of teaching and learning will be geared to the proper objectives of education: the search for critical understanding, the promotion of tolerance and the pursuit of justice.

Community

§24. Our universities are its people: its scholars, its students, its staff and its alumni, coming together for the benefit of our local regions and of wider society. Universities all belong to one scholarly community. We are the communities.

§25. Universities are not just great communities; they are also a collection of smaller communities, made up of scholars, students and staff working in different academic disciplines as well as in associated areas of activity. Many of these are called departments or schools. Our universities will strengthen departments by formally recognising their role in the working of the organisation as a whole. We will acknowledge that they may conduct their affairs in different ways, depending on what is appropriate and practicable for their respective fields, and we will respect and nurture this diversity. We will ensure that departments or their equivalents are adequately represented in the constitution of the university, at all levels of inclusion, with elected representatives at every level. At the most inclusive level, universities should be represented and led by their Senates.

§26. We do not pretend that university communities are harmonious places, free from conflict and argument. On the contrary, it is a sign of its vitality that disagreements are openly discussed and debated, rather than hidden behind a veneer of consensus that often serves as a disguise for managerial imposition. In our universities, we will encourage open debate in preference to ‘consultations’ which, in soliciting opinions, admit no space for critical dialogue. However, we will also seek to replenish the reservoir of goodwill that makes it possible for differences to be resolved.

§27. Management harbours an inherent tendency towards verticality and centralisation. In our universities we will counteract both tendencies by instituting decentralised organisational structures in which departments or equivalent units are granted, as far as is practicably feasible, the autonomy to run their own affairs, as trusted professionals and informed colleagues. Time and money saved from supporting and responding to managerial functions will be reinvested in teaching and research.

§28. Communities depend on regular face-to-face interaction. We will ensure that scholars, students and staff in our university have the time, opportunities and congenial physical spaces, including common rooms, to meet and interact. We will accordingly seek to reduce the atomisation that can be driven by the overuse of computers as a substitute for real interaction . IT systems have their uses, and in much of what we do they are indispensable. But overdependence on these systems has pronounced negative effects, inducing isolation, depersonalisation, alienation and even ill-health. It does much to erode the sense of belonging among both staff and students.

§29. More insidiously, corporate IT systems have become instruments of managerial control. In our universities we will not allow the requirements of these systems, or the assumptions that underpin their design, to govern the way we conduct our affairs, to restrict what or how we teach, or to limit the practice of our research. They should work for us, not we for them.

§30. Our universities will need leaders. They will have a genuine vision for universities as beacons of scholarship, and will be committed to the core values of wisdom, tolerance and humanity. Our leaders will be part of, and will identify with, the greater community. They will be chosen by the community, not by undemocratic committees whose members may have little experience of higher education, nor by firms of head-hunters which have their own business interests at heart. They will be accountable to the constitutional organs of the universities, and will be transparently remunerated, like everyone else, at a level commensurate with their experience and responsibility, to be determined by these organs.

§31. As a large and complex organisation committed to the support of academic life, our universities will also need administrators. They include registry officers responsible for the recruitment, admission and support of students, finance officers responsible for budgetary oversight, research officers responsible for the administration of grants and awards, and personnel officers with responsibility for staff recruitment, contractual arrangements and welfare, and for ensuring compliance with employment law. We will embed these administrative functions at appropriate levels of organisation, so that those who perform them can play a full part in the communities they support.

§32. We will additionally ensure that the boundary between scholarly and administrative roles remains permeable. We will expect the majority of scholars to undertake some administrative duties, as they do at present, but we will also encourage those whose primary role is administrative to participate, to some degree, in teaching and/or research. Through this sharing of experience, scholars and administrators will be better able to work together.

§33. Equally important to the effective operation of the university are its librarians and curators, IT specialists, secretarial and office staff, estates officers, porters, cleaners, and a host of others. In our universities, everyone will be positively valued and respected for the work they do, and for their commitment to the community as a whole. We will not, for that reason, classify as ‘non-academic’ those whose contributions lie primarily beyond the fields of scholarship.

§34. Our universities will need leaders, and it will need administrators. It will not need managers. Current regimes of management, having seized executive powers over our institutions, are acting as if each university were its exclusive possession. Having arrogated to itself the role of sole employer, management treats those who work at universities as employees or ‘human resources’, to be used for the regime’s own purposes and subjected to its increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian command. At the same time, the sense of community that scholars, staff and students of universities have forged over the years has been reduced to a market brand, designed to attract potential ‘customers’. But the university communities are not for hire, nor does it rightfully belong to the regime. It belongs to us. They are our universities, and we mean to have them back.

 

We have the opportunity to rebuild our universities. We must seize it now.

(Credit in particular to Tim Ingold and other members of the UoF group who met in Manchester in September 2017; published 10/3/18; updated summary 12/3/18).

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