The Complex Roles Of Universities In The Period Of Globalization – Altbach – Part 1

One of the most handy things about having a new member in a research group, especially one who is just finishing or has just finished submitting a PhD, is that they come in with an entirely new subset of the possible papers in the given discipline, which they have used to construct their theses and inform their thinking. While you will have the standard overlap of the key papers in the field, there will often be waterways that run away from the main river and it is in these diverse streams that we find new ways of thinking, even leading to these stream becoming tributaries that feed back into our main body, strengthening the overall work.

R has just sent me a reference from her thesis, a copy of Altbach’s 2011 publication in Higher Education in the World 3: New Challenges and Emerging Roles for Human and Social Development, entitled “The Complex Roles Of Universities In The Period Of Globalization”. The abstract is pithy but this quote stands out: “The academic drift of the 21st century raises concerns about the core functions of universities and how contemporary changes have affected academic missions.” This is a fascinating paper and one that I wish I turned up early because it has the same concerns as I do, and as Richard Hil did with his Whackademia book, in that we are all being asked to do more with less and it is how we do this that will decide our future, and the future of higher education. (Readers may recall that I did not agree with much of what Hil said – as I said, I wish I had read Altbach sooner because it would have made the rebuttal easier.) I’m going to cover this across a few posts because the paper has a fair bit of comment and I’d like to make some commentary!

Altbach looks at the different roles that Universities have had over time, including the different roles that they play in certain countries and how time, politics, religion, wealth and nationalism have all contributed to changing demands on the sector. There is no doubt that teaching and research make up our core functions but we can vary from country to country as to whether we are teaching technical skills, professional skills or general education at Universities. Over time, we have often been in conflict with our own societies, which can lead to great creativity but at the cost of additional load or difficult burdens. Research is equally difficult to pin down: are we talking ‘pure’ research or ‘applied’ research? Does research have to be discipline focused or can we perform research on teaching, or research on research? Does it matter where the research money comes from? Different areas inside the same university can have completely different answers to these questions so it’s little doubt that this question is still open!

Universities have been used to foster national development and identity, as Altbach mentions with German, Japanese and American examples, or as stabilising influences in the third world. We are also steadily evolving academic centres, adding courses as the ranks of the professions grow. My profession, Computer Scientist, wasn’t even a profession until the second half of the 20th century (that’s why we have so few cool awards – there is no Nobel prize in Applied Algorithmics). Immediately we see a conflict in the sense of stability and status quo required to be a national touchstone, while determining how we adapt to the changing demands of the workforce and the new professionals.

We have always been associated with knowledge as both the defenders and disseminators, ignoring secular and religious demand to not teach certain things or to state that red is black, with a focus on organisation to facilitate later retrieval. This access to knowledge also feeds in to one of our other key facets, or at least one of the most desirable, that of an intellectual centre. As academics, we have the freedom to express our ideas and, many would argue, the obligation to do so given that we have that freedom. The expertise that our staff have should be available to all in terms of interpretation and refinement of ideas and concepts but to do that we have to engage with the community. It is of little surprise that we often find ourselves involved in social and political movements, supporting other activists, providing resources and making an overall contribution to the intellectual life of our surroundings.

This is, for me, a very important point because it forces us to consider where the private individual ends and the public intellectual begins, if such a division even makes any sense. From a personal perspective, I would not raise my politics in a classroom but I would discuss issues of ethics and equality, some of which may or may not be in accord with prevailing government thought. Let me be more explicit. Yesterday, I attended a rally for Marriage Equality, as part of a reaction against the Australian Federal Government’s rejection of a bill to allow same sex marriage. I would most certainly not have advertised this event in my lectures or told my students about it because I think that there’s far too much capacity for me to influence my students to act through our relationship, which is not a discussion or political sharing but overt influence. I attended the rally as a private citizen but if my students asked me about it, because we did get photographed and videoed, then I feel that I could explain my actions within an ethical framework, which means that this is informing my role as public intellectual. My community, equality and ethical focus drives both the citizen and the academic and allows me to carry out two roles while attempting to minimise any exploitation of the power relationship that I have with my students. However, my capacity as a (notional) public intellectual requires me to have an explanation for what I did that is articulate and comprehensible. The private citizen is impassioned but the academic is both passionate and rationale, and can place the activity in a context that allows it to be shared.

But, as I always say, there is no point having a system that only works with perfect people. Altbach is talking about our institutions, which is the right focus for the paper, but the institutions are just buildings without the academics and students that fill them. I attempt to juggle my private and public self and, while sometimes I succeed more than others, I think I know what I should ‘look like’ to my institution, my peers, my students and my social groups. What will be interesting in the coming world of change for Universities is how we deal with the people who don’t work as well within the role of educator. I have no time, respect or tolerance for those of my colleagues who confuse intellectual freedom with a wanton disregard for reasonable behaviour in this privileged role. Just because we organise the knowledge doesn’t mean that we own it, nor does our mastery of intellectual pursuits (if we achieve that) make us any better than anyone else: we have merely had more opportunity but, for me, that comes with a corresponding level of responsibility. I have seen more than one academic, not at my own University I hasten to add, who has obviously been grooming a student through manipulation of the aura of competency that any decent academic can muster, where we appear wise, worldly and incredibly, staggeringly, deep on matters that are so very, very passionate and important. Altbach writes of what changes we have seen in Universities but you only have to read through the yellow press (or the FFFF00 press on the web) to see how many educators are abusing their relationship with their students and I’m not sure what this says about how the educators themselves are changing. I have heard dire tales of exploitative behaviour in the 70s and 80s in my country – “A for a lay” unpleasantness and similar. When we talk of our intellectual freedoms, our influence on the world as national stabilisers and centres of knowledge, it is important to remember that the components of these institutions are merely people. As we increase the stresses on the organisations, so too do we distribute this across people and, given that people are already failing some key moral and disciplinary requirements, any discussion of what our role should become will have to take into account the fact that we are building a system from people, to work with other people.

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