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Beyond unbundling and elitism: new futures for the popular

autonomous university?
Professor Keri Facer, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol
Cite as: Facer, K (2014) Ms all de la desagregacin y el elitismo: Un nuevo futuro para la
universidad autnoma popular? Gewerc, A. (Coord.). (2014). Conocimiento Tecnologa y
enseanza. Polticas y prcticas universitarias. Barcelona: Grao.

1. Introduction
The idea that the university is in crisis, or at least a state of significant flux, has
been around for some time. Indeed, struggles over the meaning and purpose of
universities have been a topic of debate in most traditions of western thought
since the Enlightenment (Readings, 1996; Barnett, 2011) Arguably, however, we
are now in a distinctive phase in this debate, which has moved inexorably away
from the competition for primacy between culture, religion and science towards
an existential concern with the very continuation of the university itself (Calhoun,
2011; Barber, 2013). These distinctive contemporary concerns are underpinned,
in particular, by changing economic and technological conditions. The former
provides a particular political impetus and rationale; the latter provides the
infrastructure and mechanisms, to provide a plausible basis for imagining the
radical disaggregation of universities as we know them today and their dispersal
across multiple institutions, practices and services.
What I want to discuss in this chapter is first, the broad contours of the arguments
in favour of the radically deconstructed (or, in Barber et als terms unbundled
university); second, the distinctive mode of resistance to this argument that is
captured in the appeal to the liberal autonomous university; and third, the limits
to this particular form of resistance. Finally, I want to explore some emerging
ideas of the popular university to propose a different way of framing the grounds
of the debate, in the hope that this might enable the identification of productive
areas for future research and for the formation of new alliances. This reframing is
intended to resist both the headlong rush towards the radical deconstruction of
the university by either neoliberal or popular social movements, as well as the
nostalgic retreat into the enclave of the elite, autonomous university.

2. The end of the university?

The banking failures of the late 2000s are providing powerful warrants for those
seeking to reposition the university as an engine for economic growth and
individual human capital (Calhoun & Rhoten, 2011). In many cases, sovereign
debt crises are being used to justify the alignment of university research and
teaching to narrowly prescribed national economic purposes and instrumental
outcomes for individuals. In Greece, for example, a country in which the right to
free higher education was enshrined in the constitution as a public good, funding
has been radically reduced and a university education is being reconceived
primarily as a personal economic benefit (Grollios & Gounari, 2012; Zagorianakos,
2012). In England, universities are now subject to policy making from the
department of Business, Innovation and Skills rather than the Department of
Education; funding has been withdrawn from all but a limited number of
economically significant subjects; and student fees increased to 9000 per
Such changes, notably, are not being met with universal public opposition.
Indeed, the awareness that it was elite-university-educated graduates who were
leading the failing banks unsettles the easy elision between investment in middleclass students higher education and the wider public good. At the same time, the
continuing conditions of mass under-employment amongst graduates unsettles

the familiar narrative that higher education develops human capacities for society
as a whole, while simultaneously increasingly the importance of higher education
as an individual positional good essential for maintenance of middle class status
(Brown et al, 2011; Calhoun, 2011). Such conditions limited public finances,
declining public confidence in the benefits of the institution are propitious
foundations for the wholesale opening up of universities to the logic of market
forces and economic instrumentalism.
Alongside these changes to the political economy of the university is the
emergence of a growing online learning industry that promises access to high
quality higher education independent of geographical location. Wholly online
courses are proliferating as lucrative spin-offs for universities and entrepreneurial
academics, as well as for publishing and technology companies seeking to open
up the education market (Isaacson, 2011). University teachers can make
information and resources available to thousands of students with limited
infrastructure and skills, lectures can be promoted widely through distribution
channels from YouTube to TED, and online discussion groups are being adopted for
international, dispersed student groups to high levels of reported student
satisfaction and comprehension. The proliferation of universities online offerings,
their advocates argue, creates more equitable access to university education in
opening up university access, by reducing costs and by allowing students to
manage what and how and when they learn. The emergence of new forms of
online assessment and accreditation, moreover, promises to be equally disruptive
of traditional university roles. The digital, from this perspective, offers a significant
opportunity to ensure that higher educational practices really meet the personal,
idiosyncratic and urgent needs of students in a way that the traditional 18-24
place-based model cannot offer.
Taken together, these technological and economic shifts set the scene for a
radical deconstruction of the research university as a place, as a community and
as an institution characterised (sometimes more in the idea than in the
observance) by a commitment to the wider public good through the collegiate
production of new knowledge and learning. A practice of online, individualized and
modular teaching and assessment determined by market need, surrounded by
academics practicing in distributed think tanks and research labs, perfectly fits a
culture of micro-payment on demand. This is the nature of the avalanche that
some loud voices in the debate argue is coming (Barber, 2013); an avalanche
that will see universities swept aside in a transformation that parallels the
disruptions of the publishing, retail and music industries:
nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education
than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being
developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity. (Friedman, 2013).
This discourse and the technologies that potentially enable it, perfectly elide
populist imperatives for more accountable and publicly responsive universities
with the logic of the market. This creates a new vision for the university premised
almost entirely on a principle of economic instrumentalism, governed solely by
consumer choice, and delivered almost wholly online.
This idea of the university and the relative absence of powerful popular moves to
resist it (within the UK at least) provides a useful corrective to the idea that
universities are unchanging institutions, necessarily immune to changing
technological and economic conditions. While such a shift may be possible,
however, it is far from clear that such a change is desirable.
There is little evidence from institutions spearheading these developments, for
example, that the radically unbundled university will find a place in its activities

for curiosity driven research, for protecting a wide range of teaching programmes,
or for civic activities and responsibilities. There is little guarantee in this model
that the present demands of the market will sustain the research and teaching
that may be needed by societies further down the line for new and different
environmental, technological and social conditions. If universities should be, as
Michael Young argues elsewhere in this volume, places where society conducts its
conversation about the future, such a restriction of activities would bring a
significant risks.
Indeed, the combined effect of an already stratified higher education market with
the increased reach of digital technologies driven by powerful publishing
companies, risks producing not the flowering ecosystem of innovation that its
advocates fondly imagine, but an unproductive monoculture of educational
experiences that can be rolled out globally. While recognising, therefore, the
important popular critiques of the contemporary university, as well as changing
economic and technological conditions, it is nonetheless clear that the ideas
currently being proposed for the future of the university have significant

3. The return to the elite autonomous university

How, then, are academics, policy makers and publics responding to this push
towards the radical disaggregation of the university? While the increase in student
fees saw a significant but short lived flourishing of large scale student protests
here in England, the more sustained resistance to these ideas of the unbundled
university have come from well-established faculty groups who have been seeking
through the mainstream media and through policy channels, to restate the values
of an autonomous liberal university. In this model, the university is understood, in
Stefan Collinis terms, as a home for attempts to extend and deepen human
understanding in ways which are, simultaneously, disciplined and illimitable
(Collini, 2011). The core of the liberal case against the unbundled university is the
argument that universities primary responsibility is to serve the public good by
pursuing specialist, disciplinary inquiry, driven by curiosity, peer review and
challenge within the discipline. There is, importantly, a strong theoretical
underpinning to such claims. The gradual accretion of evidence and insight within
knowledge communities, in which there are clear rules for the claims that can be
made, has served as a powerful resource for empirical and conceptual
breakthroughs since the formation of the disciplines (Young, 2007).
In the UK, this argument is most clearly expressed by the Council for the Defense
of British Universities, which was launched in late 2012. It numbers amongst its
a dozen past and current presidents of Britains foremost learned
societies the British Academy, the Royal Society of London, the Royal
Society of Edinburgh, and the Learned Society of Wales eight members
of the Order of Merit, nineteen members of the House of Lords
The aims of this group are wide ranging, but at its heart is a creditable resistance
to economic instrumentalism as a basis for academic teaching and inquiry. They
argue that the responsibility of universities to develop specialist knowledge and to
remain a site for autonomous thinking that resists the totalitarianisms of both
state and market is best achieved by constructing a university that is inured
against interference by others outside the walls of the university whether
students, taxpayers, commercial organisations or governments.
In exploring how this argument becomes embodied within social groups, however,
its flaws become visible. In particular it becomes clear that when embodied in

particular interest groups this defense pays insufficient attention to the critiques
of the elite liberal model that have helped to sustain popular political support for
intrusive accountability and audit in the university sector. Its advocates pay too
little attention to the elision between powerful knowledge (disciplinary specialised
knowledge) and the knowledge of the powerful (the embedding of power relations
within educational and research institutions) (Young & Muller, 2013).
Collinis defense of the university, for example, includes no reflection on the
extent to which the traditional liberal model has historically served as an efficient
mechanism for elite economic and social reproduction (Bourdieu, 1988; Brennan
and Naidoo, 2008). There is no critical examination of how it is that individuals
come to enter the academy and the sort of academy and forms of disciplinary
inquiry that this therefore produces. Indeed, there is nothing other than the
suitably vague and obfuscating aspiration that university education, both
undergraduate and graduate, be accessible to all students who can benefit from
it (CDBU, Website, Jan 2013, our italics). At a time when economic factors,
including private schooling, significantly determine the likelihood of higher
education and in particular elite higher education being judged beneficial, such a
statement is a facile refusal to be concerned with the inherent reproduction of
privilege in the academy. Indeed, implied in this analysis is the assumption that
widening access to universities is part of the problem of the creeping
managerialism of the university sector; it is other people telling them who to
teach and who should be allowed to aspire to their positions in future.
One difficulty with this defense of the university therefore, is that it positions the
defense of the powerful intellectual resources of the university in opposition to
those who would make the case for the university as a force that could and should
be articulated with wider social aspirations, such as democracy or social progress.
For such aspirations, after all, require reflection about who it is that comes to be in
and to hold positions of intellectual as well as political power; they require
attention to cognitive as well as to social justice (de Sousa Santos, 2007).
The definition of the public good upon which these defenders of the liberal
university premise their claims, moreover, seems strangely parochial. In
defending academic values from external audit and assessment, for example, the
CDBU makes reference primarily to the UKs high ranking in international league
tables in comparison with other nations (CDBU website, Jan 2013). Such claims
offer no acknowledgement of the historical contingency of these tables, the
extent to which they are heavily weighted in favour of english-speaking scholars
and the myriad cultural factors that shore up traditional patterns of prestige. More
importantly, they offer no recognition of the limits for both knowledge and for the
wider public good of premising the defence of the university on a narrowly
competitive nationalist agenda (Readings, 1996). To that extent, they echo the
impoverished parochialism of Barbers uber-neoliberal education manifesto with
its conceptualization of university purpose as winning the global war for human
capital (2013).
In the end, the demand for autonomy of inquiry, as Marginson (2000) has
demonstrated, provides few safeguards in itself against a shift towards economic
instrumentalism, particularly at a time of declining public finances. The
autonomous, self-managing scholar looking for the next unexamined terrain and
the next academic patron has much in common, after all, with the autonomous,
self-managing entrepreneur looking for the gap in the market (Marginson, 2007).
One might be in strong agreement with defenders of the liberal university,
therefore, that universities should not be broken up and sold to the highest bidder
(although the extent to which the divide between public and private in terms of
university economics is currently policed is already unclear). One might also agree
that research and teaching should not be made subject to the dictats of either

state or the market in pursuit of economic or other totalitarian agendas. Indeed,

one might be in strong agreement that pursuing the creation of specialised
scholarly communities has historically been a highly efficient and proven means
of developing powerful knowledge. Nonetheless, the simple defense of the liberal
university as a kneejerk reaction to the emergence of the ideas of the unbundled
university seems far from adequate. Indeed, as Brennan and Naidoo (2008) have
argued, the track record of the autonomous liberal university is far from stellar
even when judged against its own stated intentions of enlightenment and
speaking truth to power. In sum, the idea of the university that underpins this
defense seems wedded to the sort of unreflective elitism that in fact fuels the
popular support for the neoliberal university in the first place.
The challenge, therefore, is to recognise and value those elements of the liberal
autonomous university that enable it to act as a resource for building powerful
knowledge and for resistance to totalitarianism of state or market; while at the
same time better understanding and responding to the popular critiques of the
liberal university as the university of the powerful, critiques which fuel demands
for economic and public accountability and risk seeing universities unbundled
solely into consumer services for capital.

3. Re-imagining popular knowledge

One response to this dilemma is to seek, simply, to soften the edges of the liberal
autonomous university by attempts to widen participation in the academy. Such
attempts in a time of austerity and constrained budgets often, however, fuel an
alchemical aspiration for a perfect mechanism to identify talent irrespective of
socio-econonomic background - in order to work out how better to speed a limited
number of poor but talented individuals rightful (or at least plausibly defensible)
entry into ever more exclusive elite institutions. The re-emergence of claims of
genetic predisposition to intelligence (e.g. Shakeshaft et al, 2013) that are already
being mobilised to support arguments about the inevitability of inherited privilege
(Wintour, 2013) however, make it hard to believe that this strategy will do more
than provide window dressing to prevent the revolution.
In the spirit of the old saying that my enemys enemy is my friend, I would like in
the remainder of this chapter to explore whether a more productive strategy
might lie in building allegiances between ideas of the liberal autonomous
university and the currently marginalised research practices and resurgent social
movements who are seeking to re-imagine the university not as a place but as
a popular practice of social learning and experience-based knowledge production.
To do that, first, it is worth exploring what these popular educational movements
comprise. Today, in response to a perception of diminishing returns on attempts to
work within existing school and university structures there is a new proliferation of
practices that do not simply seek to gain entry to the university, but to create
the university in the city, the slum, the movement and the village. Such practices
include the impromptu universities of the Occupy and Indignados movements, the
continuing traditions of Freirian popular education within social movements in
Brazil, the barefoot colleges of India, the re-emergence of ideas of situationist
free universities (e.g. Edufactory, Really Free School, School for Strategic
Optimism); the disciplined experimentation of the Transition movement and the
rediscovery of older traditions, such as Co-operative learning societies described
elsewhere in this volume. In some cases, such practices are virtualizing, with
groups such as the peer-to-peer university or Edgeryders, creating online spaces
for collaborative learning, self-and peer-assessment, and mutual support.
While they are highly diverse educational and social practices, what they have in
common is a rejection of the idea of the university as a site of economic
transaction. Instead, they are reinterpreting the idea of the university as an

emancipatory, collective and democratic social learning practice. They are formed
of allegiances between academics and activists, social researchers and policymakers; they bring together existing groupings, from patients advocacy groups to
local community organisations. They are concerned with participatory modes of
research (co-production, action research, co-design, social innovation) and with
uncovering older forms of teaching (dialogue and seminars). In particular, they
demonstrate different criteria for judging quality of both research and teaching,
concerned not primarily with unique contributions to scholarship, but with
beneficial action both on the ground and in respect of wider social movements
(Mignolo, 2009)
In the remainder of this chapter, I would like to suggest that it may be through
forging new allegiances between these ideas of the popular university and the
traditional practices of the elite liberal university that a new idea of the public
research university, capable of contesting the popular and economic appeal of the
unbundled university, might be formed.

4. Articulating the Popular and the Liberal Universities?

I do not have space here to do justice to the myriad different traditions of
knowledge production and scholarship that exist in both popular and liberal
university positions. Indeed, the debates over the relative meanings and merits
of participatory action research, collaborative research, co-production and codesign amongst those in the myriad popular university movements, for example,
would happily fill this entire volume and many more. What is important and
common to these practices, however, is that they are not simply concerned with
gaining access to existing disciplinary knowledge. Their orientation in relation to
the academy is not, in many cases, one of supplicants. Rather, they are often
driven by a commitment to multiple ways of knowing that leads to a critique of
the intellectual endeavor of universities as far from adequate to addressing
contemporary social, environmental, political and economic challenges (Torres &
Del Reye, 2011; de Sousa Santos, 2007; Connell, 2007). Equally, there are clearly
significant differences between the modes of knowledge production of different
groups in the liberal university; the practices of engineers, biologists,
philosophers or historians and their claims to truth and powerful knowledge, are
highly diverse. However, what is important and common to the idea of the liberal
university as defined by advocates such as Collini and Young, is that its claims to
truth and methods of producing new knowledge are driven by disciplinary
tradition and bounded, clearly defined community practices.
Let us for a moment, however, imagine that advocates for popular and liberal
universities decide to explore their common ground: namely, their shared
negative opposition to economically instrumental and individualizing forms of
higher education and their shared positive aspiration for the pursuit of knowledge
to enhance human flourishing. How then might they address and overcome the
issue that underpins their fundamental point of disagreement namely, different
analyses of the legitimate sources and drivers of powerful knowledge?
This is a critical question to ask because it shifts the terrain of the debate beyond
the necessary but insufficient arguments around access to and participation in the
university. It also recognises that, while there is little else that might be agreed
upon, the core concern of the public research university today is with knowledge
(Calhoun, 2011). To address this, however, we need to further delineate the
competing positions of liberal and popular claims to knowledge and expertise.
The critique of the liberal university made by advocates of the popular
university emerges both from post-structuralist thinking and from anti-colonial
and identity politics. It argues that western traditions of thought dominant in the
liberal university and allied to governmental, military and industrial regimes,

produce totalizing and universalizing knowledge claims that have been closely
allied to support for existing elite power. The core of the argument is that the
knowledge produced by the liberal university is, in fact, not autonomous, but
deeply implicated in support for elites with significant and negative consequences
for other forms of knowledge and ways of life. This argument has been very well
rehearsed elsewhere (e.g. Connell, 2011) so I will not expand on it here.
The reciprocal critique of the popular university is that it is concerned only with
the local and the specific, that it fails to use the cognitive resources that have
already been developed through traditional science and scholarship, and that it
thus renounces the claims to use and generate knowledge that enables them act
in and on the world more widely. This is often premised on a Gramscian critique of
populist education movements, as Apple argues:
When Gramsci (1971) argues that one of the tasks of a truly counterhegemonic education was not to throw out elite knowledge but to
reconstruct its form and content so that it served genuinely progressive
social needs, he provided a key to another role organic and public
intellectuals might play. Thus, we should not be engaged in a process of
what might be called intellectual suicide. (Apple, 2012, p42)
More substantively, Young and Muller encourage us to pay attention to
the irreducible differentiatedness of knowledge. Knowledge is
structured, in part independently of how we acquire it, and knowledge
fields differ in their internal coherence, their principles of cohesion, and
their procedures for producing new knowledge. These internal differences
are mirrored in the different forms of social relation between the actors
that practice in the institutions of those fields: knowledge relations and
social relations vary in tandem. (2013)
Creating alliances between autonomous and popular universities isnt, from this
analysis, a simple matter of breaking down the walls and saying these practices
are interchangeable or equivalent. Rather, it involves the recognition that the
different contexts, structures, procedures for judging value and social relations
that are involved in the intellectual work of these different forms of the university,
will produce different forms of knowledge. Such different forms of knowledge will,
moreover, be differently articulated with existing social, material and
technological structures and therefore will be able to effect different forms of
social action. These different forms of knowledge are often defined as differences
between theoretical and practical knowledge, between knowledge that travels
and knowledge that has meaning in place, between knowledge that provides
cognitive tools and knowledge that provides a basis for practical action.
To date, however, the point of difference between these two positions has too
often been focused in public debates around the question: whose knowledge
should count? And who gets to create knowledge? Should it be the knowledge of
those able to produce grand theories or those who can bring insights from lived
experience? Should it be the knowledge of those who are affected by changes or
of those who are originating the technologies that effect such changes? Success,
when defined on these grounds, is achieved by having particular voices heard
more clearly than others, by successfully including or excluding groups from the
debate. More problematically, attention to this question alone can lead to
tokenism, a politics of identity that locks non-dominant groups into specific
positions in the knowledge hierarchy, and a proliferation of representational rather
than truly transformative, knowledge politics.
Perhaps we might therefore ask a different question: how might the different
knowledge production practices of popular and liberal universities be put into

dialogue? This does not imply eroding the barriers between the different modes
and practices of knowledge production, but the creation of conditions for debate
between these positions. It sees barriers between knowledge practices not as
constraints, but as productive foundations for examining difference and exploring
points of action in different conditions.
I would like to conclude this paper by arguing that both the conceptual tools and
the widespread collaborative research processes are emerging that will allow us to
begin to theorise and test this question empirically. The conceptual tools emerge
from Eikelunds re-reading of Aristotle as a means of contesting the
theory/experience split that so often underpins antagonisms between liberal and
popular ideas of the university. The large-scale changes in research practice are
happening around the world, as academics are beginning to work with community
organisations, social movements, public bodies and social enterprise under the
auspices of ideas of the civic university. What is required now, however, is
systematic and critical reflection on these processes to examine whether they are
opening up the potential for a powerful articulation of liberal and popular ideas of
the university.

5. The possibility of phronesis

In his 2012 analysis of different forms of action research, Olav Eikelund seeks to
move the field towards a more precise language for describing the different forms
of knowledge practices employed in different research relationships. He explicitly
draws on Aristotle to treat knowledge as relational, as including always both
object and subject. From this perspective, Eikelund distinguishes between
theoresis as abstracted knowledge of things that have a force/motive beyond
the influence of the observer/knower; and theoria as abstracted (or perfected)
knowledge that is produced from practice. With the exception of physics or
astronomy, Eikelund argues, all generalised knowledge is theoria, it is a set of
rules that are employed and worked with by each of us as individuals but which
we relate to together and which is produced in dynamic and two way relationships
between experience and abstraction/perfection.
This has implications for the relationship between what we usually describe as
theory and practice. It requires that we pay attention to the way that theoria is
produced in a dynamic relationship between reflection and action. Eikelund, in
particular, foregrounds the role of skohle (school) in this process. Skohle
Eikelund argues:
as a reflective relief from immediate immersion in some practice for
bending back and grasping its form and pattern, provides an alternative
critical distance from within practice for reflective reification of patterns
in our own practices through critical dialogue, not as an external and
segregated observatory for outsiders (non-practitioners / spectators).
At the same time, he argues that theoria, in its operation in practice, is not a
simple technical implementation of abstracted knowledge to all situations:
it is, and was intended by Aristotle to be, deliberative, clarifying ends,
reasons, and justifications for communicating minds (peers, colleagues),
not rigorously deductive or calculative based on strictly formalised
knowledge and simple efficient causal connections.[] it needs
deliberative phrnsis for the proper discretion and consideration of
There are three elements of this argument that seem particularly important for
the question that I have just raised, namely: how might the different knowledge
production practices of popular and liberal universities be put into dialogue? First,

it locates all knowers as engaged in practice whether this is the practice of

research generation in liberal universities or in social movements or community
organisations; there is no knower who is not also testing and reflecting on
practice; and no practitioner who operates without theory. Second, it makes the
case that processes of reflection, of skhole, of bending back to grasp form and
practice, are essential to the production of theoria from experience. Finally, it
argues that the testing and application of theoria is in all cases non-instrumental;
rather, it is deliberative, social, based on the discretion and consideration of
particulars and the determination of which and whether particular abstracted
theories should apply in these conditions. The theory/practice, abstract/specific,
divides that underpin the antagonisms between popular and liberal university
practices, are, from this perspective, seen as distractions from the more
fundamental question of how different knowledge communities dynamically
produce both practice and theoria.
On this basis, it is possible to imagine grounds for dialogue and encounter
between liberal and popular university practices. First, it creates a foundation of
mutual respect that acknowledges both sites as concerned with practice and
theory. Second, it creates a new opportunity to reconceive the sites in relation to
each other. They might be conceived as sites for skohle and phronesis, each for
the other, in which participants in different knowledge production communities
participate in each others practices as moments of reflection and of testing out
and deliberating the validity of theoria in different settings. This perspective
would see these different processes of knowledge production not as mutually
interchangeable, but as playing powerful reflective and deliberative roles each
for the other.
One site in which such a conception of the relationship between liberal and
popular practices might be tested is in the UKs Connected Communities
Programme. The programme, launched in 2010, is dedicated to interdisciplinary
research into community conducted with, by and for communities. To date,
nearly 300 projects have been funded under this programme with varying degrees
of community participation in the design, conduct and analysis of the research. At
the heart of the programme is an aspiration to develop research methods that
effectively draw on the expertise, insights and experience of both communities
and academics
As with any research programme, its origins are multiple and contested and its
original purposes within university funding councils remain the subject of some
debate. A popular critique of the programme would point out that in terms of the
familiar question of whose knowledge counts, the Connected Communities
programme still reflects the ethnic and class make-up of the academy in the UK. A
liberal university critique would point out that the methodological innovation of
the programme risks taking energy and time away from traditional academic
Drawing on Eikelunds analysis, however, it might also be useful to ask different
questions of this programme and others like it if we are to explore the potential
articulation of liberal and popular modes of university. We might ask, for
example, how these projects that seek to articulate popular and liberal
university forms of knowledge are actually putting them into dialogue with each
other? To what extent do these dialogues enable a bending back from both sites
of practice? To what extent do these articulations of different settings offer
opportunities to test, reframe and negotiate theoria in practice? To what extent,
in other words, are these projects acting as moments of phronesis for the
reflection upon the ground rules that should be used to negotiate which values,
warrants and knowledge claims can be invoked in different settings?
It is too early to provide definitive answers to these questions, but a couple of

projects provide some insights into how different ways of knowing are being
articulated and negotiated in the programme. Consider, for example, the Walking
Interconnections project, in which the substantive topic of living with loss is
explored through collaborative research between social scientists, environmental
activists and disability rights advocates. As the lead researcher, Dr Sue Porter,
describes it, the project enables exploration of different ways of knowing about
and living with spoilt futures. The project has worked towards this by creating
walking encounters between activists and scholars working in different traditions,
to explore how different accounts of loss and the future might be used in different
settings. Consider, also, the project Woven Communities, in which the experience
and expertise of museum curators, archivists and botanists is combined with the
experience and expertise of basket weaving communities in Scotland to produce
new insights into the history and implications of mechanization of production for
local ecosystems. Both of these projects involve, not a repudiation of each others
knowledge communities and practices, but the creation of new grounds for
encounter between them, where they can be put into dialogue with each other,
where different ways of knowing provide a skohle for all participants, and where
the theories of each group are debated against the new grounds of the other. This
is neither a craven capitulation of academic disciplinary knowledge to the masses,
nor the exploitation of popular knowledges by academic elites; it is the careful,
systematic attempt to create new grounds to articulate these different ways of
What is also notable is that the academics involved in projects such as those in
Connected Communities often use a language of play and freedom to describe
these activities. They sometimes shamefacedly admit to doing this work because
it is enjoyable. On reflection, it may be the case that, rather than closing down
academic research to narrowly instrumental ends, as the typical liberal argument
against such collaborations would go, the very processes of phronesis that are
required to design such research projects across multiple knowledge communities,
and the opportunities for reflection that they entail, may be reinvigorating
precisely the curiosity-driven, intellectually playful, form of inquiry that is so dear
to the advocates of academic autonomy. After all, a research project cannot be
determined wholly in advance by a funder if principles of dialogue are embedded
in its methodology. Whether these encounters truly fulfill the aspirations of
advocates for the popular university, however, remains unclear.

6. Concluding remarks
It is tempting for some, when faced with the powerful discourses of economic
instrumentalism, to seek to put up the walls and, claiming allegiance to academic
values, to resist the incursion of any external influence or intervention into the
university. Such a retreat, however, only serves to fuel the popular critique of the
university as a site more concerned with the protection and maintenance of
privilege than with the wider public good. It is equally tempting, for others, to
pronounce the death of the university and to turn to the different pressures and
rewards of social movement building and popular knowledge production. Such a
move, however, risks leaving the powerful tools and resources of universities to
those who already benefit from them. In this chapter, I have outlined a different
approach, which is to explore whether there is a potential alliance to be made by
articulating these two positions that often see themselves as in opposition.
There is not space here and it is in any case too early to determine what is
emerging from these encounters between different knowledge practices. What
merits further exploration, however, is whether these encounters truly enable the
different sites to act as skohle for each other, as sites of reflection and play and
theorization; and whether new forms of phronesis are being developed to enable
the highly diverse groups involved in these research activities to reflect together
and test out their theories with each other.

Ibn Khaldun once made the case that all great civilisations and institutions are
subject to periods of growth and decline. The trick, he suggested, was to
recognise when those moments of decline were beginning and to welcome in the
Bedouin at the gates in order to reinvigorate the institution and to bring in new
allegiances and power bases. Barber and others, advocating the unbundled
university, are arguing that the Bedouin at the gates of the university today are
the major publishing corporations and the technology companies. It might behove
the defenders of the liberal university instead to explore whether productive
alliances might also and more usefully be made in collaboration with the other
publics making up the popular universities beyond their walls.
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