Professor Ronald Barnett

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BC and AC, and higher education - 11th May 2020

From now on (the first quarter of the twenty-first century), the world falls into two temporal categories, BC and AC - before Coronavirus and after Coronavirus.  The fast coming and very gradual waning of the virus presents a totally new way of understanding the world.  The world, in the words of the poet, is changed utterly.  We have two worlds, before and after the Coronavirus.

It is remarked repeatedly that the world is small, that it is a global village, and that it is interconnected and with extraordinary speed.  And some might observe, too, that the Coronavirus is a cameo of these phenomena.  But is it yet commonly understood just how interconnected the world is; and the extent to which the Coronavirus exemplifies its interconnections?

Graham Harman’s (2018) book Object-Oriented Ontology bears the sub-title ‘A New Theory of Everything’, and it tries to live up to the title by showing how the material world has implications for society, politics and aesthetics.  But I am not sure that Harman goes far enough. 


Everything is connected

The Coronavirus shows us that the world is thoroughly interconnected, that it is to say its interconnections can be seen:

  • Between animals
  • Between animals and humans and between humans and animals
  • Between humans, biologically and socially
  • Between humans’ thoughts and imaginations of the world - for example, in creating panic-buying, in being neighbourly
  • Between humans and technologies (including the digital world) and between technologies and humans
  • Between formal knowledge systems and humans and animals (for instance, in the treatment of diseases)
  • Between knowledge systems and national policies (such that that relationship becomes a matter of public concern: just what part does ‘science’ play?)
  • Between different kinds of knowledge systems (for instance, in reinforcing epistemic hierarchy (giving top place to bio- and mathematical and statistical disciplines, in determining priorities as between health and economics and in the neglect of the humanities, with the social sciences having an intermediate position)
  • Between different socio-ethnic groupings (such that the poor and marginalised suffer from the virus more than the rich and the powerful)
  • Between nations of the world (with nations flexing their own national interests)
  • Between learning (of all kinds) and human action
  • Between values and actions.

And all of these interconnections are themselves interconnected.

We should have learnt all of this in the wake of the ongoing ecological crises (plural) but we have largely failed to undergo the necessary societal learning processes.  After all, the concept of ecology is too much an abstract concept for many (not just peoples but governments too, with their short-term lenses) to take on board. 

Now, the Coronavirus makes many of these interconnections vividly present.  And once one starts looking in earnest at some of the interconnections, others immediately cram in.   (Is the lack of masks, ventilators and other equipment a matter of global trade, of weak resilience in health planning or in distribution systems, or of the extent to which different categories of workers ‘in the front line’ are valued or not (such as those in care homes, not to mention their elderly residents)?)  Start to unravel one strand in the skein of wool and many - if not all - of the others will unravel too.


Higher education, AC

What has all this to do with higher education?  Everything.  And both directly and indirectly.  Directly, both short-term and medium-term, effects are already apparent.  Universities are closed around the world, with their staffs being urged if not required to transfer programmes of study entirely onto on-line offerings.  But there are larger and more indirect and longer-term issues, financial, social and intellectual.
Universities are worldly places.  Even though they work significantly through the internet these days, still they are national and global places, with people milling around from all over the world.  Large institutions have students and staff from over one hundred countries in close physical proximity.  What will a university look like AC?  What will it be like? 

Streams of finance are already and rapidly shrinking.  Even when the universities open, it is likely that for a very long time to come, physically, students will be reluctant to attend and mix with others.  Staff’s travels will be curtailed, and academic conferences will be substantially reduced.  As places, universities will dwindle, the hub-bub of people movements and circulations will be much lessened.  Close physical proximity will be naturally avoided.  
And in the longer term?  As international spaces, universities will shrink and become more national.  Vigilance will be needed so that they do not become more nationalist

There will be epistemological consequences: the bio and the digital and informatic disciplines will become even more powerful. 
Surveillance tendencies will be exacerbated, in relation to both staff and students.  A greater portion of work will be conducted online, not only in teaching and research but also in sheer interactions, both among the members of the university and beyond, in the university’s outreach into the wider world.   The AC university will be a wired university and, in many respects, a distant university, with its human and learning relationships conducted - as best as they may - at a distance.


Possibilities, responsibilities

Is all bleak, then, for the university?  Not necessarily.  The university is implicated in all of the interconnections identified near the start of this article.  That it is so interconnected with the world compounds its vulnerability.  Perhaps no-one institution is so interconnected with the world as the contemporary university.
But the university possesses extraordinary and probably unique capacities for self-reflection.  It can develop programme of study that encourage students to see their studies and themselves in worldly contexts.  It can search for innovative ways for researchers and scholars to engage with each other and to sustain each other at a distance, with routines and continuing commitments. 

Moreover, the university can bring new levels and new themes of interconnectivity into research and scholarly programmes.  This would be much more than old-fashioned talk of interdisciplinarity and much more new endeavours to espy strands of interconnectivity.  Where might this idea lead?  What might it entail elsewhere in the world?  What avenues open for quite new interconnections with quite distant disciplines? 

In their curricula, universities could do much more justice to the theme of internationalisation by explicitly bringing students together even in their distant locations and requiring them to engage with each other in virtual settings, not least in confronting difficult worldly issues.  (Michael Sandel is brilliant at this, with his broadcasts as ‘The Global Philosopher’.)

The university has always been connected to the world but it has largely taken its connectivity for granted.  Now it has to bring the multiple strands of connectivity into view and develop them anew so as to be much more inter-connected with the world in all of its manifestations.  All its disciplines have to work together in this endeavour. 
The AC university has to be inter-connected socially, professionally and epistemically.  And, not least in a world that just may place a new value on its public goods, the AC university will need explicitly to identify and to demonstrate the public goods that it is providing to the world.
For this programme to be brought off, we need - to return to and to put it in Harman’s phrasing - nothing short of a completely new theory of the university.  All has to be rethought.

Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, University College London Institute of Education.  His latest book is (with SØren Bengtsen) ‘Knowledge and the University: Re-claiming Life’ (Routledge, 2020)



Where Have All the Conflicts Gone? (30th March 2020)

Ronald Barnett

In the philosophy of higher education, where have all the conflicts gone?  Or, more accurately, where are the conflicts?  The mediaeval universities had their disputations with individuals pitted against each other.  Is the lack of any such disputatiousness a sign of a field’s intellectual maturity or its immaturity?  By and large, the scientists work within theoretical frameworks over which there is tacit acceptance and it Is in the social sciences and humanities where warring parties line up against each other.  But even there, overt dispute seems to be fading.  Perhaps, after all, this lack of explicit intellectual conflict is a feature of our age. 

How might, then, the lack of large issues over which there is manifestly a marked difference of perspective or view be interpreted, at least within the philosophy of higher education?  (I treat the phrase ‘the philosophy of higher education’ in the most generous way to include large theoretical and speculative thinking as well as reflective thought about both institutional matters and educational processes.) 

One way of interpreting the lack of overt dispute is to see it as a reflection of intellectual decorum.  The philosophy of higher education is just emerging as a field of study and those at work within it are reluctant to give offence and so are cautious in their exchanges.   Another possibility is that there are no exchanges!  Being a young field, and without any definite frame around which a critical mass of scholarship is forming, intellectual efforts are as ships that pass in the night.  They simply go their own way with perhaps a morse code  signal by way of acknowledgement. 

A yet further possibility connects with the wider consideration already intimated that this is the way the intellectual world is tending to be: overt dispute is becoming thinner on the ground.  And this, if it be the case, is entirely explicable.   With higher education increasingly subject to audit of various kinds (institutional, national, disciplinary), one needs friends and needless dispute is to be avoided.  One daren’t give offence for, in a few years’ time if not now, one just might need the support of a particular reviewer.  And it’s a global world, where offence can too easily be imparted to those one doesn’t know, and who may yet have influence on one’s intellectual trajectory.

Is that it, then?  That those beavering away in the field just go their own way?  Doubtless, as is the way these days, their reference lists - at the end of their papers or book chapters - will continue to grow, and there will be due deference paid to others in the community.  But there will be little in the way of staking out the ground of a particular potential field of conflict, and still less the taking up of cudgels in that arena.  Is such quiescence not a sign of a lack of liveliness, of due fervour, and a will seriously to engage with difficult issues?  Would one not expect that there would be some quite large differences of view, or approach or perspective, that could be played out in the texts that emerge in the field?  Is it not a problem that there seems to be very little - or even nothing at all - by way of difference?

It might be felt that, in the philosophy of higher education, there are simply no big issues over which to get steamed up. The field, even as it takes shape, is not of that ilk.  I disagree.  There are many matters over which one might expect to see a quite legitimate large variance of view.  Here are some:

    • The significance of ‘the idea of the university’.  There is a literature specifically on the idea of the university stretching back over two hundred years.  Does that literature have value in speaking to contemporary issues of higher education?  Some will say ‘most definitely’ and others may be of the view that that is a matter only for those devoted to the faith (whatever that be).
    • The relationship between research and teaching.  As is well known, John Henry Newman had no truck with research (which was both part of the Germanic idea of the university and was beginning to get going in universities in the mid-nineteenth century).  This is now a fundamental issue in the twenty-first century.  Does the idea of a ‘teaching university’ make sense?  Do all university teachers have a responsibility to conduct research?  There are liable to be stark conceptual differences of view on the matter.
    • The very meaning of ‘higher education’: to what extent does the term hold conceptual water?  Is there anything that is ‘higher’ that might be advocated and defended?  Or has the term simply become a bureaucratic term, depicting part of the total educational effort?   The differences here, I wager, will be more nuanced but nevertheless still stark.  There will be those who will aver that the term denotes an especially high and even metaphysical level of human development and there will those who will be unmoved by the matter, or even seeing in it the smidgen of a residual elitism.
    • Negotiation or resistance:  Many will see the large ideas of the day - marketisation, neoliberalism, entrepreneurship, equity, social justice, access - as ideologies to be critically examined and even resisted - while others will wish to seek ways of accommodating to them.  (Depending on one’s own stance, particular ideologies will be picked out for attention, in one direction or another.) 
    • Academic freedom:  The topic stirs into new life from time to time.  Just now, there is a particular issue in the public domain, that of the no-platforming of speakers on campus and of the language that academics may or may not use in classroom settings.  Just what are the conditions and limits of ‘free speech’ to be?  What rights should (a) academics and (b) those on university premises enjoy?  Again, large differences of view might be advanced in the philosophy of higher education, with some urging a more libertarian standpoint and others pleading for definite boundaries, so as - for example - to afford a measure of ‘safe spaces’ on campus.
    • Structure and agency: This matter has prompted large debates, even of some angst, for nearly a century in social science and social theory but where are the ripples of those debates to be seen in the philosophy of higher education?  For what it is worth, my sense is of a near-unanimity along these lines: huge structures are bearing in and oppressively so In and onto higher education and it is up to individuals, either by themselves or in their local (institutional or disciplinary) groupings, valiantly to do what they can to ‘resist’ the powers that be, and to defend and advance - and to ‘construct’ - their agency.  That there might be quite different perspectives seems rarely to be entertained.

There is, by the way, a new kid on the block that does suggest the makings of an argumentative dispute.  The recent ‘manifesto for a post-critical philosophy’ stakes its claims to being ‘by no means an anti-critical position’, but rather looks to ‘affirm what we do in the present’ and to enable ‘practice to happen anew’ (Hodgson, Vlieghe, and Zamojski, 2017).  This ‘entails no longer a critical relation’.   But is it possible to establish good ground on which either to affirm the present or for new practices to happen without a critical eye on matters?  Is there not a positive space and a place for critique? Is it not that the critical relation has to be surpassed or left behind but rather reclaimed in a new relation?  At least here, surely, are all sorts of matter on which to build a debate, if not a thorough-going dispute, as to the place of the critical moment within the philosophy of higher education.

If it is to be a vibrant field of study, and if it is seriously to confront the issues of the day, and if it is to develop its own measure of criticality, the philosophy of higher education should not be shy of identifying matters on which there can be large difference of view.  So far, at any rate, the lists remain forlornly empty of contestants.  Perhaps, at least, this piece may provoke its own assailants.

Hodgson, Vlieghe, and Zamojski (2017) Manifesto for a Post-Critical Philosophy.  Open access at:

Reproduced by kind permission from 'Blog' page of the website of the Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education Society.