Gerard Delanty. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. Sage Publication. 2005.
The university can be seen as the paradigmatic institution of the public sphere and of modernity more generally for some of the major transformations in modernity have been reflected in the changing nature of the university. It was central to the emergence of modernity in Europe and America and in the twentieth century it was space that nurtured democracy and citizenship in countries emerging from colonialism. Taking a broader view of knowledge as entailing more than science but also cultural knowledge, the university can be seen as the space where the project of modernity unfolded through cognitive struggles, in particular between science and culture. From the Enlightenment onwards the university was pivotal in the genesis of national consciousness as well as in a wider commitment to cosmopolitanism, first in Europe and later in the rest of the world. Some of the most important cognitive battles took place in the university, such as the conflict over tradition and modernity, secularization and, in the second half of the twentieth century, democracy and human rights. The university is, then, more than an institution of knowledge production but has also nurtured the dominant and emergent cultural models of society. In the terms of Castoriadis, it might be said that the university is the ‘imaginary institution of society,’ that is, one of the major sites in society where the radical imagination flourishes (Castoriadis, 1987). However, a sociological history of the university has yet to be written. The current tendency is to see it in terms of a model of decline, perhaps because of the wider disenchantment with modernity and the promises of the Enlightenment—promises that were very much connected with the idea of the university.
With the Enlightenment, the overriding belief was that the university is based on the unity of knowledge. This was the view that knowledge is based on a fundamental underlying idea, allowing us to speak of the ‘idea of the university.’ Knowledge was held to be autonomous, self-legislating and an end in itself; it was located not in society but in the institution of the university, and higher education was merely the dissemination of this idea in a knowledge-bereft society. Briefly, three cognitive shifts occurred in the twentieth century. The first, and discernible from the late nineteenth century, was in the emergence of disciplinary, specialized knowledge, dominated by the experimental natural sciences within the context of national, militarized economies. This led into the age of organized,’ or high modernity, when knowledge entered the economies of the Cold War era and when the university became a central institution of the national state. The second is the democratization of the university in the 1970s when new cultural models in society entered the university (for example, feminism and the New Social Movements) in the age of mass education. This development, marking the extension of social citizenship to higher education, eventually led to a gradual erosion of disciplinarity and undermined the older institution of academic authority based on received wisdom. The third is the shift towards the postmodern university’ we are currently witnessing and which began in the 1980s when the university embraced the market and began to participate in the global order. In this shift—from the public cultures of modernity to the neoliberal and post’ cultures of globalization—the erosion of disciplinarity and the autonomy of science become more pronounced and, it is often argued, the very notion of academic autonomy enters a crisis along with the declining authority of national institutions. In this view, the trajectory of the university in modernity is one of the loss of autonomy and the gradual descent from the ivory tower to social, economic and increasingly technological concerns. But, as I shall argue, rather than speak of a model of historical decline, we should see the university as the site in which the social and cultural contradictions of modernity get expressed in battles about the nature and function of knowledge.
In this chapter my aim is to look at how the debate on the university has been refracted through the main sociological theories of higher education. Hopefully this will relativize some of the dire diagnoses of the current situation of higher education. The sociology of the university has been a neglected aspect of the history of sociology. Yet, most of the major sociologists and social theorists from those in the classical tradition such as Weber, Durkheim and Veblen and mid-century sociologists such as Parsons, Bell, Riesman and Shils, to the radical generation—Touraine, Gouldner, Habermas and Bourdieu—wrote extensively on it. In doing so they were not all necessarily working within the sociology of education but, from the broader perspective of social theory and the sociology of knowledge, saw higher education and more generally the institution of the university as central to a wider understanding of modernity. Too much of the debate on the university has been dominated by speculative work on the idea of the university. More recently some of this genre has become popular with the thesis of the postmodern university, beginning with Lyotard and reiterated by Bill Readings in an influential philosophical application of Lyotard’s ideas. The postmodern theory of the university has been reflected in widespread concerns about the embracing of market values by the university under the condition of globalization. I shall try to demonstrate in this chapter that the sociological works offer an important appraisal of the university as an institution that marks major transformations within modernity. These works put into theoretical and historical perspective a wider view of the university as a resilient institution that both reflects and transforms the society of which it is a part. Thus rather than speak of the demise of the university as a result of the postmodern scenarios of the fragmentation of knowledge, the retreat of the state, the embracing of market values, or the impact of globalization, a sociological approach suggests a more differentiated view of the university. The chapter will show that the discourse of citizenship has been central to the conception of the university in modernity and much of this is still relevant to the current situation.
First I outline the major classical conceptions of the university in social theory; in the following section I discuss the idea of the university in radical social theory; next I turn to contemporary debates on the university and, finally, I offer an appraisal of the current situation of the university in light of these debates.
Social Theory and the University in Modernity
Since the Enlightenment the university has been a central theme in many debates on the nature of modernity. From Kant and von Humboldt to Newman and Jaspers much of this revolved around the question of academic freedom and the institutional underpinning of the unity of knowledge that was central to the Enlightenment project. If the Enlightenment promised progress through knowledge, the university was the institution in society that provided the space in which to make possible that goal. With Max Weber the philosophical discourse of the university and the Enlightenment ideal of knowledge and science as an end is put on trial. Weber departed from the Enlightenment-influenced idea in one major respect: he did not think that knowledge had a self-evidently emancipatory function and he strenuously opposed the use of science for politics. The university suffered the same fate as knowledge under the conditions of advanced modernity and the total disenchantment of the world he believed accompanied modern rationalism, the result of which was the irreconcilable conflict between the realms of science, politics, ethics and art.
In his famous lecture in 1918, ‘Science as a Vocation’ (‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’), he discussed the role of the university professor in the disenchanted age of modern rationalization (Weber, 1948: 131). Weber noted how the rationalization of the university in Germany is a form of Americanization. ‘This development, I am convinced, will engulf those disciplines in which the craftsman personally owns the tools, essentially the library, as is still the case to a large extent in my own field. This development corresponds entirely to what happened to the artisan of the past and is now fully under way.’ Weber lamented, but accepted with resignation, the inevitability of the disappearance of the Enlightenment university and the rise of the modern instrumental university. Less critically and in line with his value-neutral conception of science, he noted the separation of science and politics, for the conduct of science under the conditions of modernity allows no room for politics. Science is the product of a rationalized world devoid of personality while politics still offers some scope for personality and the recovery of charisma, is his message. His lecture ends on a note of resignation to meet the ‘demands of the day’ and the ‘intellectual sacrifice’ that science as a profession requires. He was unambivalent in his commitment to ‘ethical neutrality’ for he believed that cultural values could not be judged. Knowledge might gain some power over them if it confined itself to neutral analysis. But even then it will be limited; as he put it in an essay on universities in 1908: ‘The freedom of science exists in Germany within the limits of ecclesiastical and political acceptability. Outside these limits there is none’ (Weber, 1973: 17; see also Shils, 1973). This was the basis of a view that won widespread support in later decades and is best represented by the German sociologist Helmut Schelsky’s term ‘solitude and freedom’ (Schelsky, 1963). In Einsamkeit und Freiheit, a work never translated into English, Schelsky demonstrated, in what to some was unrealistic, the idea of an overarching and transcendent point of unity, which is to be found, he argued, in the ‘solitude and freedom’ of science and scholarship. However, there was a tension in the view of the relation between higher education and society in some of these early sociological theories.
The Enlightenment model of the university believed the unity of knowledge rested on the unity of teaching and research. Much of the early sociology of the university recognized the breakup of this unified model of knowledge. For instance, Thorstein Veblen in his influential The Higher Learning in America (1962), first published in 1918, wrote about the decline of the liberal model of the university which becomes instead a place of research to which teaching is subordinated. This transition was marked by the creation of the PhD, as an attempt to usurp the German liberal humanist tradition of knowledge as an end by institutionalizing a research culture. Recognizing that the twentieth century university would be different from that which preceded it, Veblen nevertheless held onto the Enlightenment humanistic understanding of knowledge as an end in itself. These theories were among the first intimations of the entry of the university into sociological consciousness.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when sociology as a discipline consolidated, several notable sociologists and social theorists wrote about the university and from diverse perspectives. In the United States Daniel Bell saw the university as occupying a central role in the postindustrial society, as did Alain Touraine in France, although from the perspective of radical politics; Riesman charted the course of the university in the age of radical politics; Parsons and Platt wrote a major work on the university as the central institution in professional society; for Gouldner the university was strung between the intelligentsia and radical politics; in Germany Habermas saw the university as a mean of cognitive critique and societal learning; and Bourdieu wrote about the university as an organ of cultural capital which might be the site of new social struggles.
Daniel Bell (1966) was one of the first to recognize the importance of the university for sociology, proposing the thesis that the university is a central part of the postindustrial society and in it a potentially emancipatory ‘knowledge class’ is to be found. For Bell, this class, essentially the intelligentsia, is composed of the scientific, the technological, the administrative and the cultural. The cultural includes intellectuals in the narrow sense of the term, political and public intellectuals as opposed to experts. Since the postindustrial society depends to a great extent on the production of knowledge, the university will occupy a more important role than before. It would be inevitable that as the university becomes implicated in material production, it would also take on a political role. In his famous work The Coming of the Postindustrial Society, Bell defended the relevance of the traditional and the modern functions of the university. The function of the university, he argues
is to relate to each other the modes of conscious inquiry: historical consciousness, which is the encounter with a tradition that can be tested against the present; methodological consciousness, which makes explicit the conceptual grounds of inquiry and its philosophical presuppositions; and individual self-consciousness which makes one aware of the sources of one’s prejudgements, and allows one to re-create one’s values through the disciplined study of the society. (Bell, 1974: 423)
In this respect Bell identified an important feature of the university: it is one of the few locations in society where many modes of knowledge are concentrated. Whatever unity is possible in face of such specialization and differentiation consists precisely of this concentration of functions. For Edward Shils this role was inseparable from citizenship. He believed the university had made a major contribution to social and civic citizenship by providing society with some of its essential requirements, in particular a professional class.
For Parsons and Platt (1973) in The American University, a major attempt to apply Parsonian structural functionalism and the sociology of knowledge to higher education, the university is the key institution of the ‘fiduciary’ subsystem, which might be understood as the ‘system of trust,’ and lies in the ‘zone of interpenetration’ between the cultural system and society. It is interesting to note that Parsons and Platt in this major work on the university do not see a conflict between these two functions. Influenced by functional theory and a liberal political ideology which predisposed them toward a largely harmonious view of society, they saw a complementarity in these functions and believed that the university did not have to compromise its role as the ‘trustee of cognitive culture.’
The unity of the university for Parsons is not the unity of a legitimating idea but the functional unity of its structures with respect to the societal community. The two principal features of the American university are: ‘(1) that it, and with it the institutionalized cognitive complex, has become a differentiated part of a complex society and (2) that it has become upgraded in prestige and influence within the society to the point that some commentators describe it as the central institution in the society’ (Parsons and Platt, 1973: 103). The key concept for Parsons and Platt is ‘interpenetration,’ the process by which one subsystem affects another: the university is forced to occupy a zone between culture and society, and therefore must cut across these systems. But the imperatives of differentiation do not preclude the possibility of an overall integration. This complementarity between differentiation and the possibility of integration is the central and unifying theme in Parsons’s entire sociology of modernity (Parsons, 1974). It was his firm conviction that there is an overall unity of function in the core components of modern society. In the Parsonian framework this unity of purpose is reflected in the university’s interpenetration into the domains of culture and society. Indeed, the very term cognitive rationality embodies both a cultural (cognitive) and a social (rationality) dimension, as Parsons and Platt point out (1973:38). What is important in the Parsonian framework is that the university is still connected to the non-cognitive structures of the cultural system, while being autonomous from the moral community at large. The complexity of the interrelationships that characterize the university prevents it from being the moral arbiter of society: the modern university cannot function as, they say, the ‘Prince’s conscience,’ as in the early modern university (Parsons and Platt, 1973: 47-50).
The university’s main functions are: 1 research, 2 professional training, 3 general education and 4 cultural development. Of particular importance is the growing significance of professional training, which they see as a response to the demands of the economic system, which creates the need for a public system of accreditation. These functions are related to the different institutions within the university, research is concentrated in the graduate schools, professional training in the professional schools and teaching in the colleges. Cultural development is not underpinned by a specific domain within the university but is located within society, where professors can gain influence in the public domain either as intellectuals or as professionals. While Parsons and Platt argue that the primary core value of the university is cognitive rationality, they recognize that the university is increasingly becoming a certifier of professional competence within the occupational order. In Parsons’s words: ‘the university became the primary trustee of that phase of the cultural heritage of modern societies that was important for the grounding of professional competence’ (Parsons, 1979: 91). In their framework, intellectuals, who have access to the mass media, are also important in their contribution to the ‘general definition of the situation,’ with respect to the human condition as a whole and the status of the social sciences. The university, they argue, makes a major contribution to public knowledge which is central to modern society. The public, unlike professional knowledge producers, is concerned less with the problem of explanation than with the problem of meaning (Parsons and Platt, 1973: 279-82).
The American University was a product of disciplinary organized knowledge with politics kept outside. Academic freedom was also a freedom from politics. As Parsons (1979: 108) himself admitted, academic freedom ‘is closely related to the rights of privacy enjoyed, for example, by the family and (subject to very broad restrictions) the rights of parents to have the main voice in the bringing up of their children.’ The role of the university was not to criticize or transform culture and morality but to pass on relatively intact a received tradition to future generations. Clearly this was an inherently conservative function. As Durkheim observed in his history of educational thought: ‘the evolution of education always lags very substantially behind the general evolution of society as a whole.’ He noted how, for instance, ‘a great scientific movement was to be born in the sixteenth century and to be developed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries without making the slightest impact on the University before the beginning of the nineteenth’ (Durkheim, 1977: 1964).
Radical Social Theory and the University
Until the 1970s, the university occupied a central location in society, but in late modernity the university came gradually to incorporate voices from the margins of society. Cultural revolution in the Western world from the 1960s onwards shattered the cultural framework which carried liberal education (Lipset, 1967). In this period the university becomes less a transmitter of culture than its transformer. In Germany, where de-nazification was a project led by the universities, this was particularly pronounced. What is striking about the revolutionary decades was the emergence of a cultural clash between bourgeois culture and mass culture. New cultural voices emerge: the women’s movement, black and ethnic cultures, nationalist liberation movements, Marxism and the postmodern avant-garde which sought to re-link art and politics. As a result of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, the American university became a major political site, a factor enhanced by the academicization of Marxism. In the 1960s and 1970s the counter-cultural impulse stemmed largely from the students, a contrast to the other great period of academic revolution—the 1790s and the opening decade of the nineteenth century- when it stemmed from the professors. This is expressed, for example, in a famous incident at Warwick University in 1970 and became the subject of the book edited by E.P. Thompson, Warwick University Ltd, when students, protesting about the lack of accountability in the university, occupied the administration and gained access to controversial information relating to what E.P. Thompson later called the ‘industrial- intellectual oligarchy’ (Thompson, 1970). In a book entitled Culture in the Plural, published in 1974, Michel de Certeau discussed the embracing of democratic popular cultures by the university: ‘The relation of culture to society has been transformed: culture is no longer reserved for a given milieu; it no longer belongs to certain professional specialities (teachers or liberal professions); nor is it any longer a stable entity defined by universally received codes’ (de Certeau, 1997: 41). He believed the introduction of popular culture into the university was leading to the birth of the student worker and the wider abolition of the social divisions of labour. Though this socialism of the intellect and of labour was not to last, the politicization of the university was irreversible.
An important German debate on the university began in the late 1960s with a contribution by Habermas. Habermas’s (1969, 1971a, b) intervention concerned the question of democratization and cultural renewal. Rejecting attempts to define the university in terms of the culture of humanism, on the one side, and on the other, as a purely instrumental institution for providing technical knowledge, he defended the critical heritage of the university. Like many intellectuals on the left, he was aware that the older humanistic model of the university—the subject of Fritz Ringer’s famous study (Ringer, 1969)—failed to offer resistance to fascism and consequently needed to recover its moral standing in society. Habermas emphasized the role of the university as an interpreter of a society’s self-understanding and not just passing on its heritage in an unmediated manner: ‘it belongs to the tasks of the university to transmit, interpret, and develop the cultural tradition of the society’ (Habermas, 1971a: 2). The old German university helped to establish the nation-state, but the task of the reformed university is to prepare the way for democratization. However, Habermas believed the reform of the German university was compatible with the Bildungs ideal of the older model in so far as this could be transformed into a more critical kind of self-reflection. For Habermas the university was also in danger of becoming dominated by the instrumental rationality of technology and capitalism. The alternative was democratization and the ending of the dualism of academic hierarchy and the administration of departments. In a later essay (Habermas, 1987), he argued that the critical role of the university has remained unrealized but to bring to realization today will require the creation of a ‘communication community.’ For Habermas, like Parsons, the university is a ‘bundle institution,’ that is it is rooted in the life-world through the bundling of functions, such as research, general education, cultural self-understanding, the formation of public opinion and the training of specialists: ‘As long as this complex has not been completely torn apart, the idea of the university cannot be completely dead’ (Habermas, 1987). But unlike Parsons, Habermas argued the unity of the university is not to be found in culture or in science but ‘in the last analysis it is the communicative forms of scientific and scholarly argumentation that hold university learning processes in their various functions together’ (Habermas, 1987). While the older humanistic conception of the university emphasized the professorate as the guardians of culture, Habermas pointed out that it is the students who are now defending the university (Habermas, 1971b). Habermas’s theory of the university thus places a central role in his wider social theory of modernity, seeing it as the site of critical and communicative reason. In his work on the public sphere, for instance, modernity is seen as the unfolding of communicative spaces and while many of these spaces have been feudalized or colonized by instrumental reason, the university has remained an important site of critique (Habermas, 1989, 1996). As is also evident in his other work from that period, Knowledge and Human Interests (Habermas, 1978), knowledge is a differentiated structure and is linked to society by its inseparable connection with cognitively specific human interests. But what links all the sciences together is not scientific rationality as such but the embeddedness of science in communication, for despite extensive differentiation and specialization the mode of knowledge production within universities has not become totally detached from the cognitive horizon of the life world and to that extent it contains within it a connection with communication. Such a communicative understanding of the university allows us to speak of the ‘idea’ of the university with a major qualification: the ‘idea’ of the university does not necessarily derive from the university itself. As Habermas intimated, a ‘new life can be breathed into the idea of the university only outside its walls’ (Habermas, 1987).
This was also the position that Alain Touraine took. In The May Movement, Touraine (1971b) applied his sociology of action to the university. As the paradigmatic institution in the postindustrial society, he believed the university might be the focus of the new kinds of social movements, the first signs of which were the events of May 1968 in Paris. In the post-industrial society, knowledge is the key to the new struggles, he argued in Post-Industrial Society (1971a). The implication of this is that the university must decide whether it is to be allied to politics or to capital. Touraine believed the mode of knowledge produced by the university could be used to renew the cultural models and to lead to the creation of new social practices, a social theory that was elaborated in more abstract terms in The Self-Production of Society (1977). He saw a new role for the university emerging as a reflection on society for the ‘progress of knowledge is inseparable from the critical self-reflection of society on itself, on its intellectual operations as well as on its social and political organization’ (Touraine, 1971a: 332). The university thus exists between politics and knowledge: just as there is no pure or autonomous knowledge neither is there pure politics. ‘The university was and is, simultaneously, an instrument to reinforce the dominant scientific creation and a relatively independent center of criticism and cultural change’ (Touraine, 1971a: 334). Seeing knowledge and politics as mediated in the cultural model of society, he criticized both the conservatism of the university and the offensive politics of the students. In his subsequent writings, he grew more distanced from the idea of a postindustrial social movement emerging within the university.
A theme that becomes visible in the sociological writing on the university in this period is that the university is a site of cultural contestation. It is a relatively autonomous zone in society where major cultural conflicts are fought out over what might be broadly called ‘cultural capital.’ This is evident in the work of Riesman, Gouldner and Bourdieu. In The Academic Revolution David Riesman and Christopher Jencks (1968) emphasized the rise of the academic profession which reached pre-eminence with the emergence of the student movement. In work published in 1980, On Higher Education: The Academic Enterprise in an Era of Rising Student Consumerism, Riesman explored the implications of this confrontation (Riesman, 1998). As a result of the emergence of student revolt there was an inevitable decline in the power of the academic profession in an era of what he called ‘student consumerism.’ In one of his most famous books, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, Alvin Gouldner explored some of the contradictions of the university in postindustrial society (Gouldner, 1979). Arguing that intellectuals and the intelligentsia together formed a new class,’ a kind of ‘cultural bourgeoisie,’ which is essentially contradictory since it is composed of two overlapping elements, the professions and the radical intellectuals. While both share a social existence in the production of knowledge, the former is embedded in the system of power and the latter is in opposition to it. The New Class differs from the older elites in that it has control over education. The school is the major alienation from the old class, he argues, but the decisive break is in higher education: ‘Colleges and universities are the finishing schools of the New Class’ resistance to the old class’ (Gouldner, 1979: 44). In his view, education is more than just the ‘ideological state apparatuses,’ as Althusser claimed (Althusser, 1971). Instead, he argued the university is a contradictory place in which the New Class may seek alliances with business or with apolitical culture or with political subversion. The university is, like the New Class itself, internally differentiated:
To understand modern universities and colleges we need an openness to contradiction. For universities both reproduce and subvert the larger society. We must distinguish between the functions universities publicly promise to perform—the social goods they are chartered to produce—and certain of their actual consequences which, while commonly unintended, are not real: the production of dissent, deviance, and the cultivation of an authority-subverting culture of critical discourse. (Gouldner, 1979: 45)
Gouldner’s thesis is that the New Class, which is much more contradictory than the old class, does not control cultural capital such as knowledge. He believes there is enough empirical evidence to suggest that, in particular, in higher education power is loosened not tightened. Higher education thus becomes a major ‘cosmopolitanizing influence’ in modern society. In it there is a shift from causal to reflexive speech and a discourse emerges in which claims and utterances may not be justified by reference to a speaker’s social status. As a result, all authority referring claims are potentially problematic (Gouldner, 1979: 3). As he put it elsewhere: ‘The university’s central problem is its failure as a community in which rational discourse about social worlds is possible. This was partly because rational discourse as such ceased to be its dominant value and was superseded by a quest for knowledge products and information products that could be sold for funding, prestige and power—rewards bestowed by the state and the larger society that is bent upon subverting rational discourse about itself’ (Gouldner, 1979: 79). In sum, he argued universities foster a ‘culture of critical discourse,’ cosmopolitanism and reflexivity.
We can conclude this discussion of the university in modern sociology by referring to the work of Bourdieu. In his extensive writings on education and the university, in books such as Homo Academicus (1988) and The State Nobility (1996), Bourdieu presents a view of the university as the paradigmatic site of cultural capital. Although Bourdieu’s main studies on higher education are based on research conducted in the late 1960s and 1970s and are very specific to the French context, they provide a striking account of some general trends in the transformation of higher education. Sharing with Foucault the view that knowledge is power, Bourdieu maintains that knowledge is not primarily emancipatory but is socially located in contexts of power which are in essence classificatory, or cognitive, systems in which the different forms of capital circulate. His concern is to reveal these contexts of power in order that knowledge might be reflexively reconstituted. Bourdieu’s sociology of knowledge claims that cognitive structures shape, limit and influence the production and circulation of knowledge in society. Consequently some of the most important battles over cultural capital are fought out in the university. Education thus is a field in which the wider conflicts and sources of inequality in society are manifest. The idea of inequality—in economic capital—the pursuit of distinction—in cultural capital—is very pronounced in education. The expansion of education has not led to greater social equality, according to Bourdieu and Passeron in Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (1977) and The Inheritors (1979). Participation in French higher education is predominantly middle and upper-middle class. Lying at the root of this position is a view of education as a form of cultural capital which can lead to economic capital but it is also something that is inherently a source of power in its own right. It is Bourdieu’s theory that this kind of power is becoming more significant today as cultural fields become more and more autonomous of the state and of particular social groups such as classes. Education thus becomes a cultural field in which society selects individuals for positions of power and allocates status and prestige. Schools and universities are primarily institutions of selection. It is this functional selectivity that connects the university to society. Since education is then primarily a form of social differentiation it is inherently stratified. Much of Bourdieu’s analysis of education centres on the internal structure of power within the university. Power in society is refracted through the prism of the university which produces different kinds of power but which are linked to the reproduction of power in society.
Bourdieu mentions in particular the struggle between three kinds of cultural capital that is fought out in the university. These are academic power, scientific power and intellectual power. Academic power refers to the power of control over the administration of academic resources and the means of career influence. It is the power to preside over credentials and allocate status and as such it is a socially codified power. Scientific power is essentially the power that comes from research reputations based on scholarly publications. It is a matter of prestige deriving directly from knowledge as opposed to the status attached to honorific positions. Intellectual power (or ‘intellectual renown’) comes from the ability to influence public opinion. It can derive from academic power but it is more likely to stem from scientific power. In France this is represented by membership of the Académie Française, writing reviews in the influential weeklies, or in publishing a book with a publisher read by the educated middle classes (Bourdieu, 1988: 78-9). The university thus can be examined as a site of struggle between these three fields of power and where different kinds of cultural capital collide.
There is no doubt that Bourdieu’s studies on education and the university stress the autonomy that these institutions have won for themselves in their ability to create orders of classification.’ There is relatively little in his analysis on the empancipatory struggles that other theorists have emphasized. Thus where Riesman saw a decline in ‘faculty dominance,’ Bourdieu sees only the ascendancy of the professorate and its consolidation as a ‘state nobility.’ Clearly in the current age of the ‘postmodern university’ this view of the academic profession is no longer tenable. Although it is allied to particular kinds of power in the wider society, the struggles within the educational field are not significantly shaped by the extra-institutional context. Unlike the work of Riesman in the United States or Touraine in France or Habermas in Germany, Bourdieu ignored the wider social context, preferring to see the crisis as deriving from problems within French higher education. This is particularly vivid in Homo Academicus which offers a structural taxonomy of the May 1968 crisis. However, what remains of enduring importance in Bourdieu’s work on the university is his account of cultural capital, which serves as a medium of exchange between the various kinds of power. In the context of the debate around the postmodern university this sense of the relative autonomy of the field of cultural capital is important.
The University in Contemporary Social Theory and Sociology
Despite their differences, the classical social theories of modernity, from Weber through Parsons, all took for granted certain assumptions about modernity, such as the relative autonomy of knowledge and the view that technology was contained by science. Such assumptions led them to a view of the university as an autonomous site in modern society. These assumptions were also present in modern social theory, such as in the theories of the university of Habermas and Bourdieu, and other figures in the radical tradition. In recent social theory—which is much more sceptical about the project of modernity—a corresponding uncertainty about the role of the university has become very pronounced amidst a broader recognition of the transformation of scientific knowledge.
There are five main positions on the university in contemporary social theory, which for present purposes will include a broader spectrum of thought than sociology: the liberal critique, the postmodern thesis, the reflexivity thesis, the globalization thesis and the McDonaldization thesis.
The liberal critique In essence, this is a conservative cultural critique and, although not sociological, is highly influential even within social science. It is primarily concerned with the university as a medium of cultural reproduction. The liberal idea of the university can be associated with the quite different positions of Allan Bloom (1987) and Russell Jacoby (1987). Bloom represents an old-fashioned conservative view of higher education as the preservation of tradition. He thus bemoans the attack on the traditional curriculum in the name of diversity. Jacoby, who represents a more radical liberal position, also attacks the arrival of cultural politics but not because of the greater value of the traditional canon: he regrets the decline of the public intellectual, who has disappeared from the university that has become the retreat of the specialist. Despite the different positions within this broad stance that derives from the neohumanist tradition, the tendency is to see the university in crisis because of the decline of the autonomy of culture, be it the culture of critique or, in its more conservative version, the traditional culture of the canon.
The postmodern thesis If Bourdieu stressed too much the autonomy of the university as a ‘state nobility,’ more recent theories that were to surface since Lyotard’s theory of the university in The Postmodern Condition exaggerate the demise of the university as a result of ‘material capital’ invading the space of ‘cultural capital’ (Lyotard, 1984). In the postmodern informational society, he argued, the university suffers the same fate as the meta-narratives of modernity. Since there are no longer autonomous spaces, the university does not occupy a privileged site. Lyotard’s view of the university is thus a striking contrast to Bourdieu’s emphasis on the ‘state nobility.’ Against Bourdieu’s image of a resilient institution of modernity, Lyotard is more sceptical of the institutions of modernity such as the university’s ability to offer possibilities for radical politics. He saw the university as based on the principle of unity by which the different kinds of knowledge are part of a universal principle of unity. Universities for Lyotard are based on bounded discourses—such as the department, the faculty, the curriculum—and modern forms of legitimation, such as the lecture and professorial authority. Therefore he did not see the university as central to politics, arguing instead that the postmodern condition is based on a different kind of politics, one of plurality and one that is located far from the jurisdiction of the state. One implication of this is the postmodern thesis of the impossibility of the curriculum. Rejecting the neohumanist ideal of the integration of teaching and research—which in different ways was accepted by Parsons and Habermas in the writings on the university—Lyotard sees teaching as counterrevolutionary while research can be emancipatory so long as it breaks from any criterion of legitimation. Unlike teaching, which he sees as under the control of the state, research can be subversive of all attempts to impose meta-narratives. In postmodern conceptions of the university, such as that of Bill Readings (1996), it is argued that the knowledge has lost its emancipatory role and the very notion of universality, or even that the very idea of a curriculum is now impossible, given the fragmentation of knowledge, as in, for instance, the separation of teaching and research.
The reflexivity thesis This set of positions is quite separate from the postmodern thesis. It is best associated with the claim that there is a new mode of knowledge based on a more reflexive relationship between user and producer (Gibbons et al, 1984). As a Mode 2 paradigm around applied knowledge emerges, the university—which is caught up in the more hierarchical and disciplinary-based Mode 1 knowledge production—becomes, it is claimed, increasingly irrelevant to the post-Fordist economy in which technoscience is becoming more important. While offering a less dramatic theory of the decline of the university, an assumption of the obsolescence of the institutions of modernity is built into the argument. In more recent work by three of these authors, this prognosis is somewhat qualified (see Nowotny et al, 2001). In general, the point that lies behind this stance is that technical training, the provision of technical expertise and generally technoscience rather than basic science is what is important today and universities are less equipped to deal with it, given that they are located in the nexus of basic knowledge characteristic of the humanities and experimental sciences.
The globalization thesis This body of writing on the university draws attention to the instrumentalization of the university as it embraces market values and information technology, especially in the area of the online provision of higher education. Although the proponents of this thesis do not use the language of postmodernism, they share the view that the university, as a modern institution and servant of the nation-state, is embracing consumerism and, as it does so it loses its moral purpose in the global age. While e-programmes are one dimension of the impact of globalization, another is in the area of technoscience. According to various authors, the university is far from irrelevant to capitalism, as the previous thesis would claim, but is in fact fully integrated into it and, as a new managerialism takes over the university, there is a resulting loss of academic freedom (Curie and Newson, 1998; Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 1997; Slaughter and Leslie, 1993). This thesis suggests that the university has become a major player in the global market and in information-based capitalism. Slaughter and Leslie (1993) argue in a major study, Academic Capitalism, that the changes that took place in higher education in the 1980s and 1990s were as great as the changes that took place in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution created the wealth that provided the base for higher education. But in the 1980s and 1990s national systems of higher education are being restructured in order to secure a greater share of global markets. The shift to ‘academic capitalism’ occurred because universities’ search for extra funding coincided with the corporate quest for new products requiring a high input of scientific knowledge. So, rather than universities becoming irrelevant, they are becoming more and more central to capitalism in the provision of technoscience and the university has in fact strengthened its position by participating in the global expansion of capitalism. What in fact exists is a ‘triple helix’ of links between government, university and industry, to use the term of Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff (1997).
These developments have led to a great deal of speculation about the emergence of global-mega universities, corporate universities, even virtual universities (Miyoshi, 1998; Robins and Webster, 2002; Scott, 1998; Smith and Webster, 1997). Building on industry-university links established since the 1980s, it has frequently been noted, universities are also moving closer to digital degrees. The growth of vocational training, distance learning and the move to make course curricula the property of the university are examples of how universities are reducing labour costs while expanding enrolment. According to Bill Readings in a brilliant study, The University in Ruins, the university was created to legitimate and serve the nation-state in a historical mission to provide the nation-state with a cultural project (Readings, 1996). This project, which derived from the Enlightenment, is no longer relevant today since, he argues, the nation-state no longer exists. The university and the state are both modern creations and the fate of the former is inextricably linked to the latter, for globalization has put an end to the university of modernity as it has to the nation-state: ‘The University no longer has to safeguard and propagate national culture, because the nation-state is no longer the major site at which capital reproduces itself’ (Readings, 1996:13). In place of defining a cultural project, the ‘posthistorical’ university is a ‘ruined’ institution, merely reproducing the corporate ideology of ‘excellence’ which commodifies all forms of knowledge. These accounts of the postmodern university thus portray it as nothing less than an enclave of global capitalism.
The McDonaldization thesis The notion of the ‘McUniversity’ indicates the emergence of growing rationalization in the university along the lines of McDonaldization as in the Weberian theory of rationalization. In one version of the argument, new bureaucratic forms of university administration are taking shape diminishing the autonomy of academics and transforming the university into a Fordist organization for the mass production of higher education (Parker and Jary, 1995). Although not amounting to the end of the university, as the postmodern thesis suggests, the idea of McUniversity indicates the arrival of a massified university in which education, professional organization and research are standardized by neoliberal thinking. The McUniversity entails greater managerial power, structural centralization, increased student intake, the casualization of labour and the elimination of inefficiency.
What are we to make of these announcements of crisis and even of the decline of the university? It is possible to agree with many of these theories, especially the latter, which avoids some of the extreme statements associated with the postmodern university. The following section will attempt an appraisal of these ideas.
The Uses of the University: The University in the Knowledge Society
To what extent is the postmodern university a reality? Has the vision of the university in what might broadly be called modern social theory been rendered obsolete by developments that can be described as postmodernization: the penetration of market values into the university, the encroachment of globalization, the possibility of the virtual mega university, the fragmentation of knowledge? Does the McUniversity offer some possibilities for the university to be a relevant institution? There is clearly much to suggest that the idea of the university in the older sociological theories of Weber, Parsons, Habermas and Bourdieu has been undermined by recent developments and the liberal critique is at best a nostalgic plea for a lost modernity. Whether the assumptions of the older approaches are no longer valid is a different matter and must be soberly addressed.
First, there is a clear need for a historical contextualization of the university. The recent debates on the demise of the university tend to be based on a historically inaccurate view of earlier models of the university. While the augmented instrumentalization of the university by market values is an undeniable and probably irreversible development, it is by no means specific to the contemporary university. Universities have always been deeply involved in industry since the late nineteenth century. German universities since the middle of the nineteenth century were heavily involved in the technological innovations and American universities since the Land Grant Act became deeply embedded in the nascent industrial society.
Second, the globalization thesis exaggerates certain trends, especially relating to the impact of information and communication technologies. Assumptions of technological determinism underlie these notions of the mega-online university replacing all other kinds of higher education. There is no doubt that the delivery of higher education is moving to more and more mixed methods, which will include on-line delivery, and self-governance has been eroded by managerialism. However, current evidence is that the virtual university may be suffering the same fate as the wider virtual economy. The belief that on-line provision will solve the fiscal problem of widening participation is increasingly being doubted, as interactive learning is in fact expensive. A distinction also needs to be drawn between the commercial and educational uses of the new global means of communication. Clearly in the lower end of the market for academic produce, online delivery will not decline, and it may also be effective for certain kinds of training, but for most kinds of educational instruction, including much of vocational training, it will not be viable as the exclusive means of instruction. Moreover, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the social impact of information and communication technologies to assume that they are revolutionary. Current sociological research reveals that in fact these technologies allow people to do what they have always done but in more diverse ways. In sum, technology has a differential impact on social relations.
Third, any sociologically informed account of the transformation of higher education today must recognize the diversity of universities. Much of the current debate tends to assume that American developments in academic capitalism are universally applicable. To an extent this can be generalized to the wider Anglo-American world, but it is highly questionable that it applies to, for instance, the European universities. Moreover, the great diversity within American higher education cannot be ignored. The European context is very different, simply because in most European countries the university is a public institution. Where the United States has been a market-dominated society, the European experience has on the whole given a stronger role to the state. Although this is less the case in the UK, the state tradition, as is reflected in Bourdieu’s studies, is a striking feature of the European university tradition. The different state traditions in Europe have given the European university an extraordinary variety of institutional forms. While the economic exploitation of knowledge is becoming more and more globalized, science is still nationally organized and yet is globally interconnected. Nearly all the important organizations of science—Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in France, the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Germany-are nationally funded. The persistence of national foundations for knowledge does not hinder the remarkable growth of global collaboration but makes it possible. In this respect an important consideration is the so-called ‘Bologna Process’ in Europe within which there is the expectation of a ‘Europeanization’ of higher education by 2010 along with a growing consciousness of the emergence of a European ‘knowledge society.’
In sum, my argument is that the spectre of the postmodern university tends to exaggerate the instrumentalization of the university by global forces and that there is not only a good deal of continuity with the older model of the university, but that much of the so-called instrumentalization is to be contextualized in a more differentiated analysis of the knowledge society where there are opportunities as well as dangers for the university.
I would like to explore three further dimensions to the role of the university in the knowledge society, a term that indicates a social condition in which knowledge is the key to social reproduction and to citizenship. The term knowledge society should be used in a broad sense to include not merely the application of science and technology in the economy nor as another term for the ‘information society.’ As has been recognized by the sociology of knowledge since Alfred Schutz, knowledge includes science and information but also encompasses cognitive complexes that are embedded in culture and in everyday life as well as self-knowledge and reflexive forms of knowledge. Knowledge is increasingly inseparable from citizenship and from democracy.
First, the postmodern thesis that the turn from the state to the market fundamentally alters the historical purpose of the university can be challenged on the grounds that it exaggerates current developments in the area of the market. What the postmodern position neglects is that the university is still a major vehicle of cultural citizenship, especially in countries where civil society is weak, for example in China, as Calhoun has demonstrated, or in Iran and in numerous other examples (Calhoun, 1994). In Eastern Europe today universities have a major role to play in reshaping societies (see Dahrendorf, 2002). Universities throughout the world have been tremendously important in cultivating democratic values and in the extension of cultural citizenship, for example in bringing about a critical and reflexive awareness of issues relating to minorities, multiculturalism, human rights, feminism, cultural heritage. While in the past much of the critical capacity of the university was subordinated to defining the cognitive structures of the nation-state, today the cultural mission of the university has extended into the broader domain of cosmopolitanism in the cultivation of postnational kinds of citizenship. The capacity of the university to define cognitive structures for society is one of the major themes in the sociology of the university discussed earlier. There is much in this that is still relevant to the current situation.
Second, in many countries higher education is central to social citizenship. In the UK for instance the question of widening participation in higher education is one of the main aims of government policy in the area of social citizenship. In the view of many critics, this has the disadvantage of a trade-off between the social question of widening participation and the cultural question of an overriding commitment to science. The defenders of liberal education make much of this, seeing only a loss in the cultural dimension. For good or for bad, higher education is being forced more and more to be an agent of social change. There is no sign of this abating and in fact the separation of mass education from research-based activities has for long been a feature of the American university. It is not implausible to suggest, following Parsons, that the university responds to integrative demands by undergoing differentiation. In this way it can achieve a degree of social integration while pursuing cultural goals. One of the best examples of the role of the university in extending social and cultural citizenship is the Open Society Foundation, funded by George Soros. Aside from being an interesting example of how globalization is not undermining higher education but supporting it, the Open Society testifies to the critical role higher education is playing in reconstituting civil society in post-communist societies (see Dahrendorf, 2002).
Third, technological citizenship has become a new form of citizenship, going beyond social citizenship and, indeed also, cultural citizenship, and pertains to challenges to society that the new technologies are creating. In the context of the knowledge society the question of technological citizenship is especially important for the university to define a new identity for itself. Technology, especially technoscience, is shaping the world according to the dictates of global market forces and is one of the major societal discourses today in which rights and democracy are framed. As science is no longer exclusively based in the university, it is not far-fetched to propose that universities have an important role to play in linking technology to citizenship and bringing about a democratization of science and technology (Fuller, 1999). Universities are heavily implicated in the new technoscience, as a result of partnerships with business. But in a situation in which universities do not entirely control the production of science and technology, their significance rather lies in their ability to produce democratic discourse.
There are undoubtedly tensions between these dimensions of citizenship. For instance, widening participation—the dimension of social citizenship—can undermine the cultural role of the university, but it can also enhance it. Perhaps it can be suggested that the term university’ today means the interconnection of different societal discourses: cultural, social and technological. Where these are fragmented in the wider society, they are connected in the university. The university no longer has a monopoly over knowledge in the broad sense of education and nor does it exclusively define science. Yet, it is a vital institution in the public sphere, contributing to civil society and citizenship by connecting societal discourses. The public sphere today is part of the knowledge society in which knowledge is not only more widely available but is also more and more contested as increasing numbers of social actors are drawn into it. It is possible to see universities in the knowledge societies of the twenty-first century having the role of public spheres, that is discursive sites in society where social interests engage with the specialized worlds of science and where national and global forces meet.