2 June 2008

Take me to a Free University

I was talking to a colleague recently about my disappointments at work and the struggle for academic freedom. She responded with a joke. A hijacker rushes to the cockpit of the plane he is on, points a gun at the head of the pilot and demands 'Take me to a free country'. The pilot responds 'Sorry, mate, this is an aeroplane not a spaceship'.

Years ago I made a plan - budget and all - to set up a Free University in Aberystwyth. We even had a building organised. It would have worked, creating half a dozen part-time jobs on reasonable salaries, charging the kids £3,000 a year. It makes you wonder what happens to the money in the universities we have. Of course if you work in those universities you know - most of it is wasted on prestige projects and administration.

A colleague recently made me think by telling me I wasn't a real academic because I write in an accessible way. I have, in the past, tried the obfuscatory prose that is the entry card to the best journals. I have to admit I can't do it very well but mainly something in me just won't do it. Why use five-syllable words and complex concepts when the ideas can be expressed in everyday language and thoughts? To justify those big, fat salaries presumably.

So, in my bioregional utopia, what would the higher education sector look like? I'm fairly sure universities would be organised as co-operatives. Since the exchange is between learned and learners the infrastructure need be fairly minimal - making it possible to have a much more fulfilling educational experience at a much lower cost. No value extracted for administration, management or buildings maintenance.

The institutions of learning would respond to their local environment and the leading industries where they are based - much as Glamorgan University was once the School of Mines. The homogenising of HE has followed the homogenising of the globalisation process so what is taught in management schools in Beijing is much the same was what in taught in management schools in Belfast.

In Stroud we specialise in sustainability so our Communiversity will showcase our achievements in this area, backed up by the necessary theory. An alternative is the proposal to create a Sustainability University of the Valleys. This proposal grows out of the permaculture principle of using the waste of one system to create the fertiliser for the new system. In this case the University will train the unemployed, working-class men of the Valleys communities to build a sustainable utopia. High hopes worthy of what calls itself higher education.


  1. A few years back I produced a "manifesto for a mutual university" when my own institution was consulting on future governance arrangements.

    Sadly it fell flat when I suggested that the VC ought to be, as in a co-op, elected by he members so he didn't let it get much further!

    But I'll get a bit of another chance since I am hoping they are about to do an audit of how and where they do and could use the "third sector" (I hate that term!) and I reckon some of that could be in individual research groups and so on...:)

  2. Universities are rather bland faceless places these days where the kids are just herded through and fleeced for fees. I doubt more than one or two staff knew my name. Luckily, I'm just old enough to have avoided fees and let Uni when a £4k debt was considered terrible.

    Why does it need to cost so much money to go to university anyhow? 85% of learning in your typical arts/humanities course comes from private study and reading. Course outline, reading list, assignment - job done.

    When you meet young people from overseas there seems to be virtually no correlation between whether they came from an education system with billions poured into it or not and whether they come across as educated and switched on. A kid who has ten books they've actually read and is taught in a shack is better off than a TV-addled kid with access to 1000s of books he or she never reads and sits in some PFI-funded 'Technology College' listening to some cynical Frank Chalk type on £35k groaning on in front of an 'interactive whiteboard' or vast lab of Dell computers.

    There has to be some alternative to the deliberately dumbed-down New Labour schools and 'posh private'.

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