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

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 who were 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 hierarchies.

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 world.

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 the 1970s, 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 “golden age” 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 others.

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 inequalities).

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 emergencies.

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 on the 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 Monetary Fund we 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 …

Peter Vale is professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg. Professor Craig Calhoun is director and president of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Born in the United States, he trained in anthropology, sociology and history, and has written widely in these and several fields. He recently visited South Africa to deliver the keynote address at the Academy of Science of South Africa’s conference on the humanities. This is an edited, abbreviated version of the interview

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