A Constraining Idea of the University


I started to write a social media post about this but realised I couldn't fit in what I needed to say in that format, even with Twitter's 280 characters.

The Times Higher Education allows partner emails and a few days ago I got one about The University of Sydney's new campaign on 'unlearning'. Nice word, I use that a lot in the context of we need to unlearn our assumptions about the past to be able to engage with the future with an open mind.

So, I click on the links to see what it's all about. I found some interesting stuff (technical term) but then I read  this "We’ve reimagined the Undergraduate Experience – the way we teach and the way you’ll learn...". Finally my brain's red flag system kicked in, but it took me a few minutes to work it out (it's Sunday morning here).

I go back to the email and find this quote:

At the University of Sydney, we are doing just that - changing the way we teach and how our students learn to provide them with the skills, capabilities and resilience to thrive in a rapidly evolving world. 

It's the stance - 'we teach' and 'you learn' - that raised the red flag. The way it's been for centuries. The University of Sydney has made an admirable effort to change the way it does teaching to maintain social relevance and competitiveness, but it hasn't changed its idea of teaching. Over time, we have separated the two, so that what a university does can change radically, but the underpinning assumptions about what a university is remain strong. Perhaps challenged, adapted or reframed, but some of those assumptions are so deeply embedded we don't even recognise we hold them.

One of those is in this new University of Sydney campaign. We teach. You learn.


Source: Laurentius de Voltolina - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH

I heard this same assumption articulated at the OECD Higher Education Futures Conference a few years ago. A brief conversation about letting students into the curriculum development process was underway, including the idea that we should let students chose their own curriculum. A voice from the audience said something like: ... 'but how will students know what they need to know if we don't tell them.'

We teach, you learn.

It's a constraining idea, closing our minds to the multiple possible futures that the university has as a social institution. It holds an image of the future where the academic continues as expert and student as novice. Expert and novice may not be words used but the positioning is there. Not partners in learning, not collaborators, not in this together. The sage may no longer be on stage and instead in an immersive environment, but the 'we teach, you learn' stance remains.

To be fair, I didn't read every word written about this shift, and the University of Sydney's language is more inclusive is other places, for example:  Imagine what could be possible if we all learn to unlearn. But their focus is on where to learn and there's still a teacher and a learner. They have changed how they do education, not education itself.

It may only be language, but language matters. It's why my hackles rise when I hear the words 'prediction' or 'futurism'. When we explore the future - something that does not yet exist - precise language matters if we are to be able to let go of the past to let the future emerge.

brick wall 1#
brick wall 1#

The future university does not yet exist but we have its beginnings here in the present. It is what we think and do today that is shaping it. Part of this is the language we use. If we continue to think that 'we teach and you learn' is right, acceptable and normal enough to keep framing learning initiatives in the present, then we close down possible futures for the university. We hit assumptions walls that make those possible futures impossible to imagine into existence.

Brick Wall
Brick Wall

Breaking through assumptions walls is essential. New images are needed, new metaphors about what the the future university is, not only what it does, that allows us to stop reusing what worked in the past and let the future university emerge, whatever that might be. 'Unlearning' is indeed a newish image (the term has been around for a while), so maybe 'unlearning together' would work for example? That would start to shift the 'we teach and you learn' assumption as least in language, and it's a way of opening up some minds just a little to the more enabling ideas of the future university that will surface if we let them.

Random emerging thoughts on the future of the university

Random emerging thoughts on the future of the university


I'm doing my PhD on the future of the university as a social institution. I've spent the past little while lining everything up, connecting all the dots in terms of theoretical framework, methods etc. The stuff that holds the PhD together. Somewhere in my brain has been a series of random thoughts about the story I'll be telling. It's yet to fully emerge of course, but there are signals of it here with me today. This post relates one of these thoughts.

Universities as a social institution are fragile - not in the tangible sense. Their buildings aren't going to fall down anytime soon, and unless governments have a radical change of mind about their value they will be with us for a while yet. But the intangible side of universities - the idea of the university - that is embedded in the people who work in them is fragile and always has been.

Universities emerge from the interactions of people as they come together to make universities real. All the things universities DO happen because the people who work in them have a belief about what there ARE - and they keep working in them even when the tangible side of the university the structure) doesn't make sense anymore. The idea about what universities are - the beliefs about its enduring role and purpose - still remains strong. Somehow it still makes sense even when the world in which that idea emerged no longer exists.

In my work, I hear stories of policies that make no sense, of being treated like non-humans, of being tired of rhetoric about purpose and identity that is rarely followed up with action. The idea is disconnected from the action and behaviour. I was reminded of this in the last couple of days when I ran a Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) exercise with two groups of university professional staff and academics. Two universities in different cities but essentially the same stories.

I ask the people in the room to tell me how they saw their university at the moment. There was a tension in the room when the process started to throw up negative images because some people like working in their university. Yet one person had come back from holidays to be told she had lost her job and would need to leave within the month. Another told a story about a plagiarism policy that assumed all students who did not cite their references correctly were cheaters, using a one-size-fits-all approach to policy. Someone else commented on the new vision that had been imposed from on high, where what was being said was not being reflected on the ground where cost cutting was the norm. And another told a story about being required to demonstrate how a new kiln she had purchased for her arts course could generate continuing income. As now an outsider, the university I grew up in and worked in for so many years seems to be a very strange place indeed.

The Myth/Metaphor level of CLA is always instructive for me. Here's a few examples of what emerged over the past couple of days:

  • people are not important - we are cannon fodder,
  • working here is like the highway to hell, and
  • we don't practice what we preach.

This couple of days is a small sample, but it's the same story I've been hearing for the last five years or so. People love the university but they dislike how its system and structures generate a culture where people are devalued in preference to compliance and accountability. That, of course, is a huge generalisation but it surfaces an important point. If the tangible side - the structure - is disconnected from the people who work in it and their beliefs about what a university is, the future of the university as a social institution may well be fragile.

The research frame


I've spent the past few weeks connecting all the dots in terms of research design. Words like paradigm, ontology, epistemology that I've read about for years took on a new meaning when I had to identify exactly what my stance was. First, of course, was quantitative or qualitative. One thing I have always known since I started my undergraduate degree was that a quantitative, realist stance wasn't for me. I don't get numbers, statistics or all those formulas. While I understand the value and necessity of data I also know it's only part of the equation when it comes to problem-solving and sense-making. And, while working in universities, I saw too many flawed forecasts because of an implicit faith in the truth of the data in the misguided search for certainty.

Through my foresight work though, I have seen the power of people coming together to discuss, challenge worldviews, and reframe difficult and challenging issues. I have seen what happens when beliefs about the future that were grounded in the past are shattered by the reality of what 'the future' means once it's opened up beyond today's cognitive constraints. It's people who create the future, not data. It's not either/or but for me, I know that people matter more. And that means a qualitative approach in my research.

Now I have put a name to all this. Interpretive inquiry, poststructuralism as paradigm, foresight ontology, social constructionist epistemology. Relativism and meaning in context, no absolutes, and valuing diversity. What it's also thrown up for me is the need to understand the power of worldviews as individuals, organisations and societies.  And you can't measure worldviews because they are personal or tacit, culturally constructed, so I'm in the right space.

Here is the research frame as it stands now.


As with all things qualitative, this will undoubtedly shift as the research continues to take shape.

Thanks for dropping by ...

Thanks for dropping by ...


Thanks for dropping by Maree's Doctorate, a journal about my learning and research experience in my PhD at Swinburne University of Technology. This blog is my reflective journal, as well as a repository for presentations and other artifacts that I produce along the way.

It's sort of weirdly indulgent to share one's PhD journal, and I'm doing it because I think I'm going to need all the help I can get!  Plus, I happen to think the openness trend is a good thing for education, and I have to practice what I preach, don't I?

My topic is on the future of the university as a social institution.  My working title is Contested Ideas of the University: Enabling and Constraining Possible Futures with 2040 marking the boundary of my future.

Find out more about how I've arrived at this place in my time, or just dive in an explore the site. Let me know if you have any questions, or need to tell me something - comments/feedback are very welcome.

And, you can find out more about what I do in my day job as a strategic foresight practitioner on my about.me page or at Thinking Futures.

So what is a university exactly?

So what is a university exactly?


I was asked recently to talk about what I thought I university is - as opposed to what it does. This distinction is at the core of my PhD work in its current form. I'm focusing on the ideas of the university that define its role and purpose, the invisible and often taken for granted assumptions about what a university is and should be. I'm looking at the university as a whole, not a sum of its parts.

I see a lot in the literature about the university as an organisation but when I read it, the work is usually about 'higher education', or specific university functions, which is what a university does. This is the current version of how I'm explaining the distinction:

"In the thesis too, there is a deliberate differentiation between what a university is and should be, and what it does and how it does it. This is done to focus attention not only on the visible outcomes of the university’s activity such as teaching, research and management and governance structures and systems – that is, what a university does and how it does it. This visible space is shaped by the invisible side of the university, those beliefs held by people as individuals and the collective cultural system that frame thinking about what a university is and should bethat is, its purpose and social role. As the thesis will demonstrate, both sides of the university are integral to thinking about the university’s future as a social institution."

When I was asked what I thought, I responded along the lines of 'a university is a space where people gather to collaborate on how to make society better'. Not terribly elegant but the essence of what I believe. The power of a university as an organisation, as social institution, comes from the people in it working together to achieve social impact.

Yet today, we have contested ideas, values, beliefs and cultures that shape thinking about what a university is and that keep people in universities apart, not collaborating. The multiplicity of ideas keep them trapped a wider system that preferences data, measurement and evidence and reduces people to assets and capital. It is a system that demands control and hierarchies, not trust and networks. It is a system where one idea of the university is dominant at the expense of all others. And in the attempts of various groups to hang on to their cultural construct of the idea of the university is, what a university does is disconnecting from the societies where it is seeking to achieve impact.

Now, of course, my PhD challenge is to demonstrate how and why I think this is happening! One thing that is amusing as I do the research is that many of the issues we think have emerged today or in the last couple of decades are actually old issues - I've found references to business incursions into the universities in the early 1900s and other challenges referenced in the mid-1800s for example. All of them are concerned with protecting cherished ideas about what a university is - their idea of a university that they hold dear and believe to be true. And in a foresight sense, at those earlier times, these writings were weak signals, seeds of the future in that present.

It is pretty clear to me that there are multiple ideas about what a university is and probably always has been. It didn't matter too much in the past when universities could self-define what they were and what they did, but that capacity has pretty much disappeared today as society pushes back and no longer accepts the self-definition. What a university is remains a concept heavily debated, disputed and contested today but the power of the idea underpinning these different views is often not articulated - and that is a problem.

Instead, the idea manifests itself in competing positions, often expressed with great passion and/or vitriol, about who has the right to tell people in universities what to do and how to do it. It's a complex, challenging and painful context that people in universities find themselves in today as they try to hang on to their ideas of the university in the face of the new, the different and beliefs not necessarily steeped in the myriad of interpretations about academic culture, values and traditions.

My PhD research is focusing on the future of the university as a social institution and I'm grappling with these sorts of issues. Will the university as we know it today exist in 20 years? Maybe, maybe not. The power of the idea of the university is a strong cultural construct however, and finding ways to accept the diversity of ideas rather than defending my right idea might just be one way to preserve the university as a place where everyone's ideas are welcome and social impact continues to emerge.