Thinking Theoretically about Higher Education

The Benefits of Intellectuality (i.e. Critique) in relation to Academic Freedom and other forms of Functionalism

Empirical and Real

When discussing universities in the UK there is a tendency to focus on the institutional forms in which they appear: the University of Leeds, the University of Oxford, the University of Brighton, the Open University, etc. Universities as institutions, empirical and real, defined by the functions they fulfil. These functions are broadly, the production of knowledge through research, teaching students to obtain qualifications to equip them for the world of work. And all of this is to contribute to the well being of a rational society.


Having established the institutionalised forms in which universities appear it is then possible to consider their current predicament: too few/too many students, the reduction of public funding tied to a more regulatory relation with the state, and associated with that an increasing managerialist culture based on practices of the private sector, e.g. performance indicators, quality audits and students as consumers.

Divided: ‘silly clubs’

The division of universities into discrete institutions is compounded by the way in which universities attempt to deal with this situation. Divided into different interest groups, ‘silly clubs’ as Sir Peter Scott recently referred to them. This culture of competition is further exacerbated by HEFCE, inviting universities to think more clearly about their unique selling points so as to be better able to sell their own vision and mission and brand of higher education.


The consequences of all of this is crisis in the everyday life of the university: First, redundancies, intensification of work, strikes and unrest, decline in academic autonomy and independence, lack of public awareness or interest, not to mention student unemployment, poverty and debt. Secondly a crisis in the idea of the university – we talk of HE rather than the university, with no real sense of the meaning and purpose of the university

Academic Freedom: a functionalist ideal

In this dysfunctional world the functionalist ideal of HE is no longer sustainable. A recourse to functionalist justifications for academic work, e.g. academic freedom, is no longer tenable. It is not that academic freedom is not an ideal worth defending, it is, but it's no longer an ideal that provides any real defence for academics, or legitimation for what we do, or how even we should go about doing it.

University as Social Form: against functionalism

There is another way of thinking about universities, not as institutional forms, with a specific function, but as social forms, or determinate abstraction. No less empirical and no less real than the University of Leeds, etc, but a reality that is in need of further elaboration if we are to understand their real nature and how that nature might be transformed.

As a social form the university is the limit of what we know about ourselves as a society, knowledge at the level of society, with the capacity to expand what we know: as science – natural and social, humanities, arts and culture: and to do this exponentially, limited only by our own capacity and our need to know.

Marx discusses the issue of the social expansion of knowing in the Grundrisse. He uses the expressions: social brain, the general powers of the human head, general social knowledge and the general intellect. Marx is theorising the knowledge society in advance of the knowledge society.

In capitalist society the general intellect has been appropriated by the expansive process of capitalist production, and turned against the individuals, academics and students, who produced that knowledge. The logic of the expansive process of capitalist production is used as the justification for the continuing destruction of the social, cultural, natural, animal, human world.

In capitalist society, the main manifestation of this form of appropriation is the university and the system of knowledge creation it supports.

Re-appropriation: Learning Landscapes, Student as Producer and Pedagogy of Excess

What do we do as critical social theorists? Defend what we have already created and, if the issue is to reclaim knowledge at the level of society for the social individuals that created it, we must dissolve the contemporary entrepreneurial university and reconstitute the university in another more progressive form.

This reconstituted university should be based not on academic freedom: freedom for academics, but on mass intellectuality (Negri et al): knowledge production is something that anyone can do (to paraphrase the students in Paris in 1968). How do we do this?

Firstly, a fundamental reappraisal of the learning landscapes of higher education based on the concept of the idea of the university.

Secondly, reconstitute the relationship between student and academics – not as student as consumer, but as student as producer: students working in collaboration with academics as part of the academic project of the university.

Thirdly, base this on a pedagogy of excess – not students acting as students but as revealers of a general crisis, raising the protest to the level of society, in excess of where their student education might have been expected to take them, and us.

All of this is our responsibility as academics and students to create the framework for a critical and intellectual debate.

Bearing in mind, there are no happy endings.

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