Kevin Robins, Frank Webster

the-virtual-universityThe ‘virtual university’ is becoming a commonplace idea or trope. Our exploration will be a critical one, hence the insertion of the question mark into our title—the ‘virtual university?’. The first concerns the importance of distinguishing between futurological predictions about the ‘virtual university’, on the one hand, and the more complex situation of what is actually happening in higher education, on the other. We need, that is to say, to separate the myths and ideologies that are proliferating about the ‘university of the future’ from changing realities and practices in actual universities now, in the present. The second issue concerns the problem of the narrow and restrictive technological bias that distinguishes most accounts of the ‘virtual university’. The basic assumption is that the ‘virtual university’ is the outcome and consequence of a new technological revolution, and that we may start and end our discussion of contemporary transformations in higher education with the question of new digital or virtual technologies. A principal aim of this volume is to counter the futurological and technological biases in the debate on the meaning and significance of the ‘virtual university’. (PDF)

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2 Responses to Kevin Robins, Frank Webster

  1. shinichi says:

    The Virtual University?: Knowledge, Markets, and Management (Education)

    CHAPTER 1

    The Virtual University?

    Kevin Robins and Frank Webster

    The ‘virtual university’ is becoming a commonplace idea or trope. In this book, we aim to explore both the concept and the practice of the ‘virtual university’. Our exploration will be a critical one, hence the insertion of the question mark into our title—the ‘virtual university?’. Here, at the outset of our discussion, it will be useful to signal two particularly significant issues that must be addressed. The first concerns the importance of distinguishing between futurological predictions about the ‘virtual university’, on the one hand, and the more complex situation of what is actually happening in higher education, on the other. We need, that is to say, to separate the myths and ideologies that are proliferating about the ‘university of the future’ from changing realities and practices in actual universities now, in the present. The second issue concerns the problem of the narrow and restrictive technological bias that distinguishes most accounts of the ‘virtual university’. The basic assumption is that the ‘virtual university’ is the outcome and consequence of a new technological revolution, and that we may start and end our discussion of contemporary transformations in higher education with the question of new digital or virtual technologies. A principal aim of this volume is to counter the futurological and technological biases in the debate on the meaning and significance of the ‘virtual university’.

    The contributors to this collection are all concerned with the contemporary realities of change in universities in different parts of the world. And they all go beyond technological reductionism, in order to address the broader economic, social, and political dynamics that have been bringing about change in the higher education sector. What will be apparent in the chapters that follow this introduction is the range and the complexity of issues raised by the ‘virtual university’ agenda. There are, of course, immediate issues to do with the day-to-day activities of higher education institutions, where new information and communications technology (ICTs) may play a significant role (distance education, virtual learning, information resources, new management, and administration systems) (Information, Communication and Society 2000). Then there are issues to do with the emergence of a new political economy of higher education (Robertson 1998), the development of what has been called ‘academic capitalism’ (Slaughter and Leslie 1997), associated with new (transnational) educational markets and new corporate forms of academic management. And, at the most fundamental level, there are the more philosophical and theoretical issues, associated with a shift in the paradigm of knowledge (Gibbons et al. 1994; Delanty 2001), which manifest in the emergence of a new ideology, or even mythology, of information and the information society (Garnham 2000; Webster 2002). The contributors to this book range across all these different dimensions of academic and intellectual change.

    The issues that are being raised in discussions of the virtual university are of the utmost importance. Ronald Barnett puts it dramatically in his announcement that ‘the Western university is dead’. ‘We have lost any clear sense as to what a university is for in the modern age’, he continues. ‘We need a new vocabulary and a new sense of purpose. We have to reconstruct the university if it is to match the challenges before it’ (Barnett 1997: 1). It might seem as if these challenges, and the invention of a new vocabulary and sense of purpose, are matters for educational theorists and policy-makers—for specialists in higher education. We believe that the challenges are of much greater significance, and that they must be of concern to a much broader intellectual constituency, across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. For what is at issue is the future of intellectual life and culture, no less.

    THE UNIVERSITY, THE NATION-STATE, AND CULTURE

    We should be more specific about what it is that is being challenged by contemporary developments. What is in crisis is, in fact, the university as a national institution. A key point of reference here is the work of Bill Readings (1996), which somewhat echoes Ronald Barnett’s sense of an ending, but which makes apparent that, if the university is now a ‘ruined institution’, it is the national model of the university that is in ruins. What Readings demonstrates is how the modern university developed as an adjunct of the modern state, and was instrumental especially in that state’s project of national cultural integration. And what he argues is that, in the context of contemporary developments associated with globalization, the relation between nation-state, national culture, and higher education is breaking down.

    The nation-state and the modern notion of culture arose together, and they are, I argue, ceasing to be essential to an increasingly transnational global economy. This shift has major implications for the University, which has historically been the primary institution of national culture in the modern nation-state (Readings 1996: 12).

    Like a number of other public institutions, the university has ceased to be ‘[a] privileged site of investment of popular will’ (Readings 1996: 14)—by which is meant national will. Its status has shifted from that of ideological apparatus of the nation-state to being a relatively independent bureaucratic system. The era of the ‘university of culture’ is thus giving way to that of what Readings calls the ‘university of excellence’, alias the ‘technological university’ or the ‘corporate university’.

    The modern university was, then, a historically specific agency, concerned with the reproduction of national knowledge and national culture. And it developed into a particular kind of national agency, shaped through the transmutation of classical and medieval scholarly principles into the codes and practices of nineteenth-century professionalism. This liberal model of the university was an elite or expert institution—in its commitment to the nationalization of culture and knowledge, it was pre-eminently concerned with high or official culture. Whatever its national pretensions, it could also regard itself as a defender of higher, civilizational values—in Newman’s resonant phrase, it was ‘a place of teaching universal knowledge’. As with other nineteenth-century professions, academic institutions were self-regulating—the principle of academic freedom was one of professional autonomy. The integrity of the profession was under- pinned by a particular ethic of academic responsibility, and by the ‘gentlemanly’ ideal of collegiality. And this ethic was further sustained by the principle of co-location—Newman’s idea of the university was to do with a place for teaching universal knowledge. As Krishan Kumar (1997: 29) puts it, ‘universities bring people together’. They have been about ‘attendance and participation in a certain sort of social and cultural life’. In summary, we may say that the modern university was organized around a particular culture and ethos of academic community.

    It is this particular culture and ethos of what we might call the national-liberal university that is now in crisis. And we may say that there have been two prevailing kinds of response to this perceived crisis, each of them, we think, problematical. The first—it is the minority perspective—is that of cultural critics—amongst whom we would include the neo-conservative Allan Bloom (1987), but also Bill Readings himself—who are primarily concerned with what has gone wrong with the ‘university of culture’ (to use Readings’ term). We can agree with much of what Readings says about the crisis of the national university, but we think that Dominick LaCapra identifies an important weakness in his narrative. Readings is, he argues,

    close to the neo-conservatives in relying on an abstract intellectual history to elaborate his big picture based on a contrast between past and present. Indeed Readings’s very understanding of institutions is largely conceptual rather than oriented to institutions as historically variable sets of practices relating groups of people . . . Readings’s big picture fits into conventional oppositions between a past-we-have-lost (for good or ill) and a present-we-find problematic—a picture that may be too simplistic to do the critical work Readings wants it to do (LaCapra 1998: 38–9).

    Readings’ conceptual—and as such unsociological—historiography produces a conventional history of decline and fall. The second response to the crisis of the national-liberal university—which has by now become the hegemonic response—is associated with the idea of educational technological revolution and the virtual university project. It is an approach that has little concern for historical reality or nuance—if Readings’ thinking tends to be abstract and conceptual, then we may say that this approach presents us with a crude mythology of the liberal university. What is painted is generally a caricature of the academy as a solipsistic, unworldly, and irrelevant institution. Thus, when Majid Tehranian (1996: 443) tells us that ‘universities can no longer pretend to be the ivory towers of yesterday’, he is mobilizing a familiar and potent stereotype—one that is familiar to us all—to discredit everything that universities have stood for until now. Here, too, the big picture is based on a contrast between past and present—but this time it is a contrast between a past-we-must-lose and a present/future- we-find-‘progressive’. Desecration of the image of the bad ivory tower of the past is rhetorically translated into affirmation and vindication of the corporate, technological, or virtual university of the future.

    What we are offered, then, in each of these responses to the crisis of the university, is a contrast between two successive epochs in the history of higher education (in one case good turns into bad, and, in the other, bad into good). The point, in each case, is to bring out the differences between the liberal-national model and the virtual-global model of the university. As is always the case with such epochal schemes of historical development, the internal coherence of each epoch is overstated, and the contrast between epochs consequently overdrawn. In order to more adequately address what is actually happening in higher education now, it seems to us that we need to find an alternative way to think about the nature of historical change. And what we suggest, in place of the metaphor of passage between epochs or eras, is a geological style of metaphor, in which we can think of change in terms of the accumulation or accretion of new layers of complexity over what already exists from the past. The virtual-global university might then be seen in terms of new (transnational) ideas and initiatives layered over (rather than displacing) already existing strata of (national) educational discourses, practices, and institutions. This shift of frame works against the false polarization of past and present, making it easier, we think, to develop a more sociologically grounded narrative of change in higher education—one that is aware of continuities, as well as transformations, and that acknowledges the complexities, conflicts, and contradictions that must necessarily exist in any real-world institution.

  2. shinichi says:

    Marketizing Higher Education:
    Neoliberal Strategies and Counter-Strategies
    by Les Levidow

    Published in K.Robins and F.Webster, eds, The Virtual University?

    http://oro.open.ac.uk/5069/2/

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