We can work backwards from the claim that universities must defend ‘knowledge for its own sake’, criticised in part one, in order to link this to the Cambridge occupation’s symbolic critique centring on genuine collaboration. Patently not all knowledge is a worthwhile pursuit for public institutions: is it worthwhile to spend time and public money learning about the truth of Harry Potter’s world, or the true meaning of Grand Theft Auto? Perhaps it is, but that these are reasonable questions without obvious answers is sufficient to make the point that ‘knowledge for its own sake’ doesn’t go far enough as a justification.
It is understandable if, to taxpayers, ‘knowledge for its own sake’ sounds too much like a smokescreen for the self-indulgence of academics and students, or for knowledge products manufactured because they will ‘sell’ well through various media (see Thrift 2005, p.59). Self-indulgence is clearly not a fitting use for public funds; public funds should presumably provide benefits for, well, the public. And if knowledge is going to be of some public benefit, it must surely, in some way, and however gradually, partially or indirectly, enhance our understanding of this public and its environment.
But if this is the case - if in order to avoid the accusation of self-indulgence, knowledge-production must enhance our understanding of the public - there are ramifications for the way in which the knowledge production process is conducted. Once we accept that the public has at least some access to knowledge of itself that is distinct from the access we have as researchers (precisely by virtue of not primarily being ‘detached’ onlookers but rather ‘embedded’ participants) - and that much of this knowledge may be tacit, difficult to explicate and hard to communicate - we must also accept that the public’s input may be just as important as researchers’ and that consequently our default mode of engagement should be one of collaboration. Not education, not consultation, but genuine collaboration.
The need for engagement was introduced by David Watson in his 2010 Presidential Address for the Society for Research into Higher Education with the following quote from Arjun Appadurai:
In the public spheres of many societies there is concern that policy debates occurring around world trade, copyright, environment, science and technology set the stage for life-and-death decisions for ordinary farmers, vendors, slum-dwellers, merchants, and urban populations. And running through these debates is the sense that social exclusion is ever more tied to epistemic exclusion and concern that the discourses of expertise that are setting the rules for global transactions, even in the most progressive parts of the international system, have left ordinary people outside and behind. (Appadurai 2000, p.2)
Leaving ordinary people ‘outside and behind’ through epistemic exclusion may not only cause indirect harm to those excluded; it must surely also be detrimental to the quality of research that higher education institutions produce.
Similar arguments linking epistemic inclusion to higher-quality knowledge have been defended competently by advocates of user-centred reforms of public services such as health and social care, welfare-to-work schemes and secondary education. But curiously university-centred knowledge-production has lain comparatively undisturbed by this reasoning. Somehow we have arrived at a position where learning is deemed to require at least some degree of participation, yet knowledge-production is left detached from public engagement and its value assessed not by external measures but by internal review. Perhaps this is what we should expect from a ‘knowledge economy’ where knowledge is reified to the extent that its production is assumed to be a good in itself.
Such an assumption, encapsulated by the defence of ‘knowledge for its own sake’, collapses the distinction between the public and private worth of knowledge: all knowledge is now plain valuable. Even making claims for the public value of a ‘neutral source of knowledge, independent of corporate wealth and political power’ (see Howard Hotson’s comment) seems untenable if neutral knowledge is taken to be producible within institutions sealed off from significant public engagement. With such defences the argument for collaboratively-produced knowledge is obscured and the way for the commodification of knowledge is cleared. If knowledge doesn’t have to be co-produced with those it is supposed to benefit, then it can be packaged by some (the producers) and sold on to its supposed beneficiaries (the consumers). Education is one way of selling knowledge; dissemination through publication or research and development for business is another.
The defence of ‘knowledge for its own sake’ is as dangerous as the subjection of universities’ activities to a narrowly utilitarian market logic; indeed it seems that the two positions may, ironically, be co-conspirators in the ‘neoliberalisation’ of higher education. Simply put, faced with the absence of a publicly-defensible justification for funding any one body of knowledge over any other - since knowledge is supposed to be intrinsically valuable - the public financing of knowledge production becomes politically unsustainable. This seems to be the straightforward reasoning of the current government vis a vis funding the humanities.
In which case where should we turn for some kind of accountability to taxpayers? Surely the answer is that we should turn directly to the taxpayers themselves. Moving away from a producer-consumer model of knowledge to a more collaborative picture, we can see how accountability needn’t solely be a matter of universities providing explicit justification for their activities. If a greater proportion of the public were involved in knowledge-production - if universities acted more in the spirit of genuine collaboration - then firstly there might be a reduction in the proportion of ‘self-indulgent’, non-publicly-beneficial knowledge produced, and secondly, the benefits of knowledge-production would be experienced directly by a greater proportion of taxpayers.
This kind of shift would take us back to the original sense of ‘university’ as community. Such a shift would involve conceiving of the university’s role less as that of a knowledge-production factory in which specialists produce packages of information, and more as an active space in which a community of learners can set itself at one remove from the situations of everyday life in order to reflect on these situations, develop knowledge about them, and engage in projects to address their problematic features.
The first universitas in Bologna consisted of students who did exactly this, organising to protect themselves from the high rents being levied by the town’s residents. It was a kind of unionisation - indeed to begin with, the term ‘university’ was used to describe various trade unions, not just unions of students and/or teachers. The universitas, or union, provided an organisation which enabled students to reflect on their circumstances collectively, to pool perspectives on their exploitation, and to act together to address a common problem. Just as unions in the 19th century turned the factory into a space for critique, the universitas gradually turned a space for individualised learning into a space for collective reflection and action.
Comparisons between unions and universities are not just of etymological interest; they also illustrate the political role that universities have to play. By facilitating collaboration at one remove from the contexts in which participants are usually embedded, universities provide space for a public to critique its own way of life. The knowledge produced in universities results from this critical project. When the university is seen in this light, the notion that expert teachers are more important in the knowledge-production process than a non-expert public, and the notion that students are mere recipients of an education rather than part of the public that circulates through the university and contributes to this critical project, seem misconceived. Students are clearly of huge importance for critical reflection on our collective way of life: they are part of the collectivity who the knowledge produced in universities supposedly benefits; they formed the original union from which the European university emerged - not expert teachers. They, as members of a public facing a situation that required critique, were co-producers of the original university’s knowledge.
The Cambridge occupiers’ actions demonstrated their recognition that the university is more than just a factory - that its worth comes in facilitating collaboration amongst a public united in critical projects, and that they as students are part of this public. This sentiment has been made most explicit by Columbia University’s occupy movement, whose declaration states that ‘A university should be a space for critique as well as the imagination, creation, and practice of alternative ways of understanding, contributing to, and living in the world.’ The occupations in Cambridge and at other universities - including Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley and UC Davis - have pointed towards the inadequacy of universities’ current interactions with the public (students included) and queried whether the rituals that have turned certain aspects of academia into more of a factory than a union can really furnish us with the government’s ‘most articulate critics’.
Part 3, For a Collaborative University, will appear soon.