Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education"
Cristina Escrigas has written one of the best brief notes about the role and potential of higher education in this world at risk that I have yet seen. I wish that her vision were placed centrally into the strategic plan of our University of Victoria. The biggest challenge in my mind is how to change things. So a first task, not at all an easy one, is to begin to build some broad consensus around the nature of the challenge. An associated challenge is broadening the discussion to still larger numbers of persons who share an aspiration for transformation. That might be done by working through the networks of higher education folks who are currently reaching out to thousands of people working in and around HEIs—networks such as Talloires, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Living Knowledge Network, Global University Network for Innovation, the PASCAL International Observatory, and more. Some attention to the higher education folks in UNESCO is warranted as well.
The disciplinary nature of universities, as Escrigas points out, makes large-scale changes difficult. We have had calls for interdisciplinarity and challenge-based curricula for decades, but the hold on the curriculum by the disciplines has continued. In fact, knowledge becomes more fragmented, for when new challenges to existing curricula emerge, the natural tendency of universities is to add a new discipline. We see that both in the science subjects and in the social sciences, humanities, and the professions. How can the stranglehold of the disciplines be relaxed so that more transversal intellectual challenges might occur?
Then there is the domination, some would say the monopoly, of the Western canon. How is it that the set of ideas and proposals that emerged from mostly white European men of 500 years ago have spread so far and wide across the globe? I was in a University in Raipur, India, a month ago, and the basic curriculum structure there was the same as that in Victoria, Canada. Both of these universities are located in sites of rich histories of indigenous languages, knowledge, and culture. Indigenous knowledge, the foundational knowledge of 350 million people is holistic, earth-focused, and communitarian. Yet these forms of knowledge have been excluded, generally speaking, from the Western canon and from acceptable forms of research. We need to move beyond our record of epistemicide towards knowledge democracy. This same inability to learn from those outside the inner circles of knowledge can be seen with regard to our understanding of the knowledge creation capacities within social movements, grassroots community work, local government efforts, etc.
Public universities—and my colleague Rajesh Tandon says that all universities should be called public—are supported by the state. In a neoliberal state, there are two problems. First, there is ideological pressure by the state to cut back on public expenditures, generally to achieve a smaller state in the interest of liberating market forces to respond to all societal needs. Second, state funding is influenced by market forces themselves as corporate interests would like to see universities prepare particular types of students, students with flexible technical skills, politically ambivalent and mobile to work within the global market system. If a university decides to strike out in new directions focused on long-term results, it is likely to find its funding threatened. Universities have for the most part tried to be all things to all people. Can this still be the goal? Are there viable challenges to the neoliberal economic agenda on the horizon? Shifting the public imagination around the role of the university will be key.