Is it time for the academy to leave the institution? #csr #browne

It may be time for the academy to abandon the institutions which have
housed it for the past several hundred years. Universities –
institutions of higher education – it would seem, no longer want or
need scholars.

I am struggling to understand the academic world in the UK following
the publication of the Browne review of higher education and student
finance in England
(http://hereview.independent.gov.uk/hereview/report/) and the
Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) announced by the Chancellor. I am
struggling to understand why universities – or their senior managers –
seem so determined to bow to the government, sack their staff, and
simply render it all to Caesar. I am based in the UK so my focus is
here, but the UK issues are a part of a wider movement. We are seeing
the end of an era: about 400 years of broad consensus around the
notion of “the state” appears to be unravelling. The unravelling of
state-funded higher education in Britain is part of it.

I have been a qualified romantic about the idea of the university.
Qualified, because I know that it has ever been that the university
serves power, wealth and authority in various ways and has stood as a
proxy or proving ground for many struggles that eventually turned
nasty (viz Milton Friedman, the Chicago School of Economics and
Chile). But, I remain a romantic about the ideal of learning and the
development of critical-theoretical perspectives on the world in all
disciplines and areas.

The words are awkward. The “academy” to which I refer is not a
concrete instance of any organisation: school, university or learned
society; certainly, I do not intend to refer to the UK Higher
Education Academy. By academy I mean those people, wherever employed,
who practice scholarship: that ideal of learning and those
critical-theoretical perspectives on the world. By
“critical-theoretical” I do not mean only that school of thought
current in the social sciences and humanities known as Critical Theory
– though that is part of it. I mean “theoretical” in the sense of
posing answers to the question, “Why?”, looking for explanations for
observed phenomena: explanations which are predictive, generative,
typical, and falsifiable. And, I mean “critical” in the sense of
looking beneath the surface of any theory for the different positions
that might be articulated in the offered explanations. These may be
positions in which wealth and power differentials are exercised
(Brookfield, 1995), but need not necessarily be so.

When I ask if it might be time for the academy to leave the
institution, the “institution” to which I refer is the collection of
concrete corporate entities known as universities or higher education
institutions.

For years employment in a university has been more or less synonymous
with membership of the academy. This has always been problematic.
There have been circles of greater or lesser inclusion. Adjunct
university staff and other “gipsy scholars” regardless of their
academic credentials have not been considered full members of the
academy. In the coming days and months a lot of the UK academy will be
forced to leave the institution, anyway, to become gipsy scholars and
adjunct staff, as funding cuts bite and the corporate agenda drives
British universities towards an ever more narrow field of operation.

But, once you separate the notion of the academy from the concrete
institutions, it matters less what functions the institutions carry
out. If a higher education institution becomes a training facility for
government initiatives, so be it. And, so what? What I object to is
that an institution, whose ethos does not embrace scholarship, the
ideal of learning and critical-theoretical perspectives on the world
should make any further claims upon the academy. While the HEI may or
may not employ people from the academy, employment at an HEI should
not determine in any way membership in the academy.

So, where does the academy go?

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