By Joshua Taylor
The modern university is a paradox, seen simultaneously as a self-contained ivory tower and a weapon of great social power wielded by the government. Across the West, universities are slated for being too ‘woke,’ a buzzword anyone can find trawling the Daily Mail for an article on Edinburgh’s soon to be renamed Hume Tower, or the late Queen’s portrait in Magdalen College Junior Common Room. Fox News has a fresh piece any time an American university includes the word ‘decolonisation’ or ‘gender’ in a syllabus or policy statement. As recently as October’s Conservative Party Conference, former Education Minister Andrea Jenkyns lamented that students were being force-fed a diet of ‘critical race theory, anti-British history, and sociological Marxism.’ Implicit within all of this is recognition from the right that the university wields great cultural power: why else raise the decisions universities make to be debated so often? Given the intimate effects universities have on their wider political and cultural environments, their values cannot remain undefined. Culture and the University and Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People, often in starkly different ways, explore the necessity of tying the threads of culture and higher education, and the impact of such a link on the communities around that fabled institution, the university.
Out of the recent pickup in academic discussions around higher education theory comes Culture and the University, seeking to address the issue that ‘the matter of culture and the university is now receiving new energies, but without anything approaching a satisfactory understanding of it.’ Given the intimate effects universities have on their wider political and cultural environments, the issues discussed in Culture and the University have pertinent, sometimes hidden, ramifications in all aspects of our lives. The authors Ronald Barnett, Søren S E Bengtsen and Rikke Toft Nørgård do not bear such this burden lightly. Indeed, the three are highly versed in theory and do not shy away from dense formations and complex terminology. Yet, the book does not always walk the tightrope between ‘user-friendly overview’ and ‘specialist literature’ as well as it might.
Comprising four sections, Culture and the University is perhaps better thought of as four books in one volume. Each author contributes an individual section without consulting the others, and the fourth section sees each author synthesise their ideas with those of the other two. Nevertheless, broad theoretical agreement between the three authors is clear across the work. That the university is home to lots of cultural battlegrounds, the multicultural lives of students, the STEM vs Humanities debate, decolonisation of the curriculum and so on, but one which lacks a unifying overarching culture. Though important, none of these debates reflect or answer a guiding principle of the institution as a whole, nor contribute necessarily towards its place in the wider community. Within this, neutrality is not an option: a university which refuses to elucidate a wider culture is taking a particular stance, often a negative one.
As to what a holistic culture should look like, the three authors attest to an approach that is non-hierarchical, crafted from the bottom up in an atmosphere of communitas. Barriers within universities and between universities and their local communities (the endless friction between ‘town and gown,’ for example) should be broken down. Barnett forwards ‘ecological culture’ as one attempted response. Intended as ‘meta-cultural glue’ for universities, this is less of a quick fix and more of a wide-angle lens through which to view cultural challenges, with ‘ecological’ including both environmental agendas and much wider scopes.
Comprising eight major ecosystems (knowledge, learning, social institutions, the polity, the economy, the natural environment, individuals, and culture itself), ecological culture seeks to connect the university ‘not just to society or even just to the world, but to the whole Earth.’ Not only does this mean no more single-use plastics, but a rewriting of how a university functions. In practice, using the example of an economics department, this would involve focusing less on abstract concepts like the commodity, profit, and capital and instead would mean rewriting what an economy is, placing sustainability and mutually beneficial trading relationships at its core.
Barnett reaches this theoretical destination somewhat dramatically, stating that ‘the answer – and it is the answer – is in front of us, and yet we do not see it. It is the Earth.’ His co-writer Bengtsen reaches the same conclusion of the need for an ecological culture, albeit through a different lens: Rousseau’s social contract, which incentivises citizens to work together for social benefits. Universities currently have an inadequate social contract with wider society; much needed revisions would emphasise the need for gown-town co-operation. Using Barnett’s ecological culture as its foundation, Bengtsen suggests this should take the form of an ecological contract, to push universities to ‘create new understandings of the world and reveal the world in strange ways.’
Despite the optimistic promise of such theories, Barnett’s explanation of the ecological culture framework, and Bengtsen’s exposition of it, only hint at physical solutions universities can deploy to aid real-world problems. At least for now, it remains the case that most universities are physical entities. Remaining in the ether too long makes Barnett and Bengtsen’s contributions, on occasion, too abstract. Their highly theoretical approach also makes Culture and the University occasionally read more like a textbook than a passionate exposition of higher educational theory.
By contrast, Bourke’s Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People analyses the university as a community. Its people are its story, and, given that it was founded by radicals, Birkbeck’s place in the world of higher education has been persistently progressive, manifesting policies long before they became commonplace within other institutions. Student-led curricula were the backbone of the London Mechanics’ Institute from the start. Women were allowed to attend classes as early as 1830, including classes like anatomy (using actual cadavers) that rubbed against the Victorian sensibilities of the day. The Centre for Extra Mural Studies (CEMS) of the latter half of the 20th century, by virtue of not being fully affiliated with the university, could engage in radical new teaching methods and modern areas of study. Diaspora studies, Lesbian studies, and feminist theory classes were taken up by CEMS and Birkbeck long before other institutions. CEMS’s experimentation with roundtable styles of teaching and the democratisation of the classroom is a fully realised (albeit imperfect) example of the kind of communal-based changes that Culture and the University suggest.
It is through reading Culture and the University in tandem with Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People, that Birkbeck’s status as a fitting model overlooked by Bengtsen and Barnett becomes clearer. Bourke’s centralization of key figures from Birkbeck’s history not only makes a philosophical point but also makes for great reading. The motley crew that studies Birkbeck’s history is entertaining enough on its own but is made better by Bourke’s writing. Her broadly chronological account, from the founding of the London Mechanics’ Institute for the education of working-class Londoners at the start of the 19th century through the various phases of adaptation to become the current Birkbeck College is, despite being a history of a university, a real page-turner.
Nørgård’s outstanding contribution to Culture and the University is similarly well-grounded, bringing the book back from the precipice of over-theorization. Her contribution uses the angle of space, as the abstract, measurable conception, and place, understood as cultural meaning attached to physical location, to explore the challenges facing universities. She especially focuses on how they fail to create a harmonious working relationship with the wider community. Any university with a building or campus inhabits space, but it is the cultural associations of that space that make it a place for its users. Universities must, for Nørgård, become ‘networked and networking communities’ that focus more on being ‘spaces of life’ than they do on being merely spaces for education. A networking institution would bring its constituents into ‘closer dialogues and equal partnerships,’ like those found in the ‘Collaborative Open Online Projects’ (CO-OP) which works on ‘shared projects, societal issues or community interventions.’ Accepting the boundaries a book like Culture and the University will necessarily have, Nørgård puts into words solutions that remained on the tip of Barnett and Bengtsen’s tongues.
At times, the disparity between the three authors makes certain absences more notable. Is it not a severe challenge to any theory that a university can only do so much by itself? Government policy can, regardless of the wishes or culture of the universities, persist in maintaining the distinction between the class of ‘those who know’ and ‘those who don’t know.’ No matter what Andrea Jenkyns and her colleagues would have you believe, universities’ autonomy is in many ways directly manipulated by those in power. Barnett, Bengtsen, and Nørgård are likely to be perfectly aware of this, but Culture and the University does not make as much reference to considerations like these as it should.
Bourke’s inclusion of figures like Ma Francis, who would ensure that refectory lunches were served even during the Blitz, highlights an egregious omission of real people from the theoretical discussions of Barnett, Bengtsen, and Nørgård. For a book that seeks to found university culture on non-hierarchical communitas, it is disappointing that there is no mention in any detail of the role that hospitality, administrative, and maintenance staff play within these institu-tions. None of this is to suggest that Birkbeck is a utopia. Its history has its flaws too: its affiliation with the University of London in the early 1900s lost it a good deal of autonomy. What’s more, Birkbeck is one of many universities recently beset by economic troubles: planned cuts to fill a multi-million pound deficit may see some eighty six academic and fifty six administrative staff sacked. Unsurprisingly, Birkbeck’s UCU branch voted for a motion of no confidence in its senior leadership. The fervent defence of its radicalism continues and, as a result, Birkbeck’s uniqueness as an institution remains the paradigmatic example of how Barnett, Bengtsen, and Nørgård’s suggestions might leap out of the pages of Culture and the University.
Insofar as universities remain physical entities, Bourke’s history of Birkbeck will remain an enlightening example of cultural boundary- pushing, to which any theoretical discussion ought to bear reference. A caveat is, however, incredibly important here: Covid. The advent of online education has exponentially increased post-pandemic and the spatial limitations that have posed issues for universities may not always afflict institutions of the future. Culture and the University may run into issues of being overly theoretical in relation to physical universities, but the potential for online university teaching, or even entirely online universities, invites opportunities for innovative and progressive university policy. Barnett, Bengtsen, and Nørgård’s Culture and the University looks poised to occupy an increasingly important space as these discussions progress.
Though far from perfect, Culture and the University has its finger on the pulse and the call for the re-establishment of an institutional culture within universities. Barnett, Bengtsen, and Nørgård’s contributions may go some way to guiding universities towards a cultural identity which involves the people, spaces and places that compose them. Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People tells the story of an institution which, perhaps more than any other in the UK, has sought to preserve its cultural identity and autonomy, and which is a meaningful template for the future. Together, these books form a timely insight into the cultural potency of the university and the far-reaching impact cultural decisions within higher education can have outside of campus.
JOSHUA TAYLOR studied Philosophy with Italian at Brasenose. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with that degree either.
Art by Jemima Storey