'Fight back!' Universities must put teaching at their front and centre

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

It is fashionable these days to suggest that the university has reached the
end of one of its lives. What do you think underlies this thinking and, if
it is correct, how do you see the next life of the university?

   A lot of universities need to be reinvented. I suspect that a fraction of
very elite, very well-off universities in the Global North can continue
without reinvention. Harvard, for example, is not under the financial and
enrolment pressures and other stresses that most institutions face.

   But universities have been reinvented many times before. So, although we
can point out that they are an ancient institution, they don't today have
much in common with the University of Paris in the Middle Ages, for example.
We shouldn't be too upset about the fact that there has to be reinvention.

   That said, I'm not entirely sure where the reinvention is going to come
from. Most core academics are committed to the institution as we currently
know it, so we try to defend the university rather than reinvent it. So, in
effect, we risk being paralysed by nostalgia, rather than guiding change.

   What are the factors that have brought universities to this point? First,
the expansion of the university sector has transformed it. This expansion
was largely a good thing because it created more places and more
opportunities for those whowere previously excluded from higher education.
But among the side effects of opening up to more entrants has been the
shifting of the quality of internal debate, and the creation of new kinds of

   For instance, the expanded higher education system has given rise to the
global ranking structures that we often complain about. These aren't just
arbitrary signals that are helpful to funders or the media; they reflect the
fact that today we have an extremely large field of universities around the

   Competition is the second thing: expansion has been organised in such a
way that universities are more distinctively competitive. Universities are
arenas of endless internal competition, with the sciences versus the
humanities the most obvious example. But externally they are also in
competition with each other - for students, for prestige, for impact.
Previously, all universities were bastions of privilege even if one was more
prestigious than the other. Now, where you go to university matters, but
what you study is also important.

   Funding regimes have also changed, and continue to do so. It's hard to
make global generalisations, but in most places in the world, especially
where the more established universities are situated, government funding is
being cut or spread among more universities, or both.

   So competition has simply changed access to public resources, which, in
turn, has driven other changes. One result is that in some places fees for
students have been introduced.

   There has also been an expansion in the internationalisation of
universities, as shown by the global movement of faculty members, global
competition for prestige, and the like. One result of this is that the
leading university of any particular country does not have a guaranteed
place among the leading universities of the world.

   And then, we are just beginning to feel the beginnings of a
transformation driven by technology. It is clear that MOOCs (massive open
online courses) are not the format in which that particular transformation
is going to come. But the debate around MOOCs certainly signals that
technology will be transformative to higher education in some form.

   Another change is that nowadays students are more market-oriented. We
have to appreciate that this reflects not simply a change in attitudes but
is also symptomatic of the very expansion I have been talking about. Many
students these days are not part of the traditional elite, they're not going
to be well off, based entirely on their parents' income. For these people,
job-oriented study makes sense because they are new to the skills and the
middle-class occupations that universities can prepare them for. History
suggests that it is hard to begrudge those who worry about the market.

   So the development of mass higher education came with the big promise of
the training of the middle class that would transform economic structures.
However, since the1970s, there has been a switch towards finance-led growth,
which is not the kind of economic growth that creates new jobs. As a result,
the middle classes come under pressures in all sorts of different settings.

   Naturally, there are different local stories but it's a widespread
pattern across the globe: in effect, the economic optimism of an earlier age
has given way to pessimism even if the timelines differ from country to
country. The cumulative outcome is that, as new forms of inequality confront
old ones, global capitalism is increasing and intensifying wealth divides in
most places across the world.

   Faced with this, the university operates in an increasingly competitive
world: Who has published in what journal? How many outputs do your
universities produce compared with mine? As they compete against each other,
they reproduce hierarchies. Their students compete and reproduce
hierarchies, too. All in higher education are drawn into this. It's a
stretched-out kind of hierarchy in which there are lots more differential
steps. Unlike in earlier times it is not two, three, four classes that
divide places, it's 200 ranking positions, and there is great contestation
over the space in between.

   But even in the midst of this constant change, we need to retain old
ideals about higher education, the importance of informing publics, the
promotion of a public discourse that matters to democracy, creating
opportunities for human development, the value of sheer intellectual
excitement, and the like.

   Do the humanities have a role in this?

   They do. But first, let me clear some conceptual ground: in South Africa,
the humanities include the social sciences, while both in the United States
and Britain the social sciences would distinguish themselves from the
humanities. Here I'm using the local, more inclusive nomenclature.

   In a lot of places, humanists have taken a somewhat defensive posture,
like "we have to protect the old system". But one needs to be aware of the
dangers of idealising a "golden age". Humanists have participated in the
"goldenage" thinking about universities more than any other group.

   That said, humanists have also pioneered the use of new technologies and
new modes of scholarly production that promise to democratise the
university, facilitate new kinds of access, and use online media to
understand fields like archaeology.

   So, often the humanities are at the cutting edge of fresh thinking about
the future of the university. One of these is to put education front and
centre. Here the humanities have been undercut by science-oriented regimes
of evaluation, scientific funding regimes and the like. Sometimes, of
course, we in the humanities have been pushed in this direction by
government fiat. But in many ways, we also are complicit because we have
readily participated in these evaluations and rankings and other sorts of
assessment schemes.

   The humanities are ideally positioned to make a deeper transformative
contribution to higher education. An important one is to rethink the current
tendency to define ourselves as researchers first and teachers second, which
has betrayed, perhaps, something basic to the humanities.

   An alternative way of thinking about the humanities is to see them as
essential in the cultivation of people and of countries, so that what
individuals don't get from nature, they get from the culture and cultivation
provided (at least in large part) by the humanities. And, on the national
level, that which makes a country is not necessarily drawn from an inherited
ethnicity, but from the broader understandings offered by the humanities.

   If this is a plausible way of thinking about the humanities, then the
role of teacher is enhanced and even exalted. As a result, humanists ought
to get a lot of satisfaction from their work. They should get it from
teaching, and from the kind of intellectual exchange and preparation that
goes into this, as well as from scholarship and public communication.

   But haven't we lost some of the benefit of this perspective in the
hyper-specialisation that is so integral to the science model?

   Yes, due to both the science model as well as funding regimes that put
pressure on academics to go out and get outside grants. So I worry, not that
outside grants are a bad thing and not that we don't want national funders
to fund our fields, but that humanists embrace and reinforce the science
model even though in it they can only be second-class citizens. Part of what
we should be struggling for in the reinvention of the university is an
"education first" understanding of it.

   If we accept an understanding of the university as a research institution
that contributes to local economic growth, but also happens to teach
students, we all lose. As we do so, we sacrifice the opportunity to
contribute to things that the humanities can distinctively offer to the
lives of individuals and to the larger society. The thing I want to
emphasise is this: don't buy into the idea that teaching is what you are
employed to do only if you are not getting enough support for your research.

   This is interesting because it is immediately relevant to this country
where teaching should, ideally, be a central pillar of the university - the
more so because of the poor quality of undergraduate students. You have
certainly laid down a challenge for South

   Africans to rethink their priorities on these issues.

   I hope so. I think it is true elsewhere too - certainly both in the US
and the United Kingdom. It should, of course, be true wherever professionals
are concerned about the social value of what they do, or about linking their
intellectual excitement to the sheer pleasure that draws us into our
respective callings. There is so much to be optimistic about in this
particular vision of higher education, but there are also terribly debased -
almost dystopian - versions of the same thing.

   One might easily imagine a narrow bean-counting approach to teaching; one
that makes classes bigger and simply processes students through their
education. In this approach, students might get professional degrees, but
they're not educated. As I have suggested, it does not have to be this way.

   The humanities, and indeed all the sciences, rest on a Western archive,
use Western epistemologies, and so on. Do you think that in a country like
South Africa we should be exploring an understanding of ourselves in our
particular African context?

   Let me turn this into two questions. One of them is about what inherited
past we claim; the other is about what we create now. It's true that the
archive, the canon, has been disproportionally Western - that's partly bad,
partly not. Moreover, it is important to try to broaden and diversify and
rethink the canon, though that doesn't just mean not teaching Shakespeare.
It does, however, mean teaching Shakespeare with different eyes and looking
at the issues of race as they appear in Shakespeare, or the issues of
Britain's emerging colonial role as this appears in Shakespeare. The point
is this: rethinking the canon isn't jettisoning it. There is a certainly a
history to be claimed beyond the Western canon, but not instead of it.

   Instructively, in Asia and in various other non-Western settings, there
is a great deal of appropriation of the Western canon, which has in effect
become the global canon, because it offers a pathway for people to move into
fields. In certain careers, like business, it matters whether an individual
from a different background understands some of the accepted canon before
becoming, say, an executive in a global corporation, or joining a global
business board.

   In terms of what we in the humanities do, however, I think there are
different issues at work, because what we do has to embrace the
contemporary, the immediate. What we explore has to be an interaction
between the local and the global- which, in my view, needs to include the
national. The latter is important because there is a form of global
cosmopolitanism these days that devalues the idea of the national project. I
believe this is a mistake because it takes away the resources to create
better, more inclusive, national self-understandings.

   The national provides the essential tools that connect the exploratory
work of artists, authors, analysts and scholars, and researchers in South
Africa - as an example - to what is going on elsewhere in the world. But the
idea of the shaping of a self-understanding that deals with national
problems, relations among different communities, inequality, or the shape of
cities is central for any country even as it carves out its relations with

   Nowadays you are an academic administrator, but you remain committed to
research. Can you say something about the book you are writing?

   Yes, I try to continue my research, but it increasingly takes place in
the hours after midnight. Currently, I am interested in three aspects of the
same thing, namely how we understand those parts of globalisation that are
not commonly picked up on. One of these is the relationship between
cosmopolitanism and belonging, which we've already touched on. Belonging is
actually a term that exists and is, I know, significantly debated in South
Africa. But this not true everywhere. There are places that are just not
part of the debate on belonging.

   My research worries are about the idea - held by many humanists - that we
can somehow give up all other forms of belonging and become completely
cosmopolitan. Of course, this is an illusion, that we can escape completely
from culture. Attempting this, we simply create new culture - cosmopolitan
culture - which has it own form (and indeed, its own blind spots and

   The second research interest is around the ways in which we relate
emergencies and systemic change on a global level. For example, the issue of
humanitarianism is inherently tied up with the idea of emergencies, and let
me stay with this example to illustrate some of my worries. Invariably, the
public are presented

   - through the media, lots of organisations, nongovernmental
organisations, governments and other global players - with a universe of

   It is a conceptual universe of short-term, sudden, unpredictable events
that demand attention while, at the same time, precluding any analysis of
the deeper structures that keep on producing those emergencies - and,
disproportionately, keep them located in the Global South, or focused onthe
poor in the Global North.

   So the question that is front and centre is: Why do we have a way of
thinking and imagining the world as a place of emergencies that obscures and
undermines the analysis of the very system that produces them? Moreover,
when you shift the grammar of, say, humanitarian emergencies to something
like the financial crisis, they are presented as "accidents" or "exceptions"
to the way capitalism operates.

   As a result, the most important point is missed: contemporary capitalism
is in a perpetual state of emergency. This raises the third domain of my
research interest: looking into the fragilities of global capitalism's
relationship to externalities like climate change, and capitalism's relation
to other forms of crises.

   Although I've isolated the three of these, each is a version of the same
thing. They present problems for action, but they are not easily solvable. A
complicating issue is that critics often present them as simply a governance
problem: "If we just get global governance right, if we beef up the
International MonetaryFundwe will solve the problems." We won't, of course.
So this approach does not present an adequate solution.

   For 40 years we have been engaged in a discussion of, and a learning
about, what we have come to call globalisation, and yet this thinking has
produced some blind spots and some odd perspectives, on the left as well as
on the right of the political spectrum.

   This seems to be relatively pessimistic field of research ... Could be,
though my attitude is still pretty optimistic. In my youth I was very much a
romantic idealist. And I remain a chastened builder, a romantic idealist ...

Article by: Peter Vale

Article Source: Mail and Guardian.