Reimagining the university

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 29 November 2010

I spent a wonderful day with students at the Really Open University programme of events last Friday, in occupation of the Michael Sadler lecture theatre at the University of Leeds. The day revealed the deeply thoughtful and critical nature of the autonomous, inclusive student movements that are emerging in the face of the Coalition’s cuts agenda. The meaningful and productive work of occupation is demonstrating how students are re-defining and re-producing their social roles.

The students in Leeds raised big questions for higher education.

  1. Can we re-imagine a more transformative university space, which values making, knowing and being over simply consuming?
  2. For whom is the university? For businesses and managers, for co-operators, or forsociety at large?
  3. How can the space and the meaning of the university be liberated?

The students organised an amazing symposium of activities, involving discussion of:

  • the attempts at autonomous educational experiences of Italian students after the earthquake in 2008, in the face of institutionalised, state and mafia controls. A key message was that these students believed in and fought for “a fairer, non-commodified education”;
  • the experiences in occupation of Reclaim The Streets, Sussex University students, and students in Switzerland, with a focus on disrupting and liberating spaces, in order that they do not replicate, reinforce or recreate power relationships;
  • alternative views of the social forms of the University, through proposed social science centres and the University of Utopia.

In the discussions the use of space was central. This was reinforced by the fact that when I walked into the main lecture theatre I was hit by its customisation by its occupiers as a living and lived-in place that made sense to them. It combined education with shelter, and with food, and with belonging. It reminded me of the ways in which guests at Birmingham Christmas Shelter fight to assert themselves and to colonise their space in that shelter. In fact, the power of the experience had me questioning whether education is both occupation and shelter; or whether in some form education acts as occupation shelter, in order for students and academics to build spaces to transform the world.

The focus on spaces for transformation has been shown in the levels of solidarity from across the globe within and between student movements, which are increasingly being revealed as attempts at non-hierarchical, co-operative organisation. In developing this type of approach, the University for Strategic Optimism argues for “A university based on the principle of free and open education, a return of politics to the public, and the politicisation of public space”. In this, social media use is highlighting the power of solidarity in autonomous movements. This is being realised through, for example, the proliferation of WordPress blogs on the open web managed by student groups; though examples of sharing and discussing actions using SKYPE; through the use of Twitter/Facebook to draw more interested parties in to discuss actual action; the use of multimedia to share lived and living experiences in the world; and through dance-offs. Part of the beauty of these examples is their interconnectedness and their lack of a formal, social media strategy or of institutionalisation. That these on-line spaces are being colonised, de-marketised, and re-claimed, offers us hope beyond the issue of education cuts, for wider opposition to the increasing enclosure and privatisation of the web.

This reclamation, whilst negating claiming ownership or property rights, highlights the drive towards personal and co-operative autonomy in a living and commonly-owned space. The students who were arguing for transformation were engaging with what Marx called “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”. This highlights an anti-institutionalised, anti-controlling description of the social forms of higher education, where barriers, separation, differences and transitions all need to be critiqued. So these occupations-as-education force us to examine the contexts in which roles like academics, managers, administrators and students are created, and the powers that they represent/realise/reproduce. This non-hierarchical, co-operative approach to social relationships makes monitoring and controlling the use of social media uncomfortable, and has ramifications for those dealing in institutionalised educational technology.

In this crisis, the critical social theory that underpins student-as-producer or which defines a pedagogy of excess may become central. These ideas define a movement beyond the present state of things. They do not replicate a curriculum-as-consumption, or a curriculum-for-business-as-usual. They view the curriculum critically through the lens of political economy and through our relationships in, and technologies for, the processes of producing the curriculum. The relationships between students and academics, entwined in praxis, and developing and defining an active, socio-historical curriculum are central to meaningful transformation. In the current crisis, students are defining radical moments through which we might re-imagine the university.


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