Wanted: New visions of the university

The presence of University World News is witness to massive global forces affecting universities, such as the emergence of a global knowledge economy, marketisation and neoliberalism. More recently, too, global changes in knowledge creation and circulation have been noted, so helping to form ‘cognitive capitalism’, as it has been termed.

Partly as a result of such global forces, we are witnessing the rise of the ‘entrepreneurial university’. This is a university that has come to understand that it is in command of services and products – intimately connected with the formation and transmission of knowledge – that have exchange value in the market.


There have been several reactions to these phenomena.

Firstly, there are those who write off the very idea of the entrepreneurial university. They are a composite of those in the political sphere, the senior levels of universities, state agencies and independent consultants and think-tanks.

Secondly, there are the academic commentators who espouse a language, in a critical vein, of ‘neoliberalism’, ‘performativity’, ‘academic capitalism’ and ‘commodification’.

Thirdly, there are those who critique the university for being laggardly in taking on the challenges of the age. Such critics point to the opportunities for the emergence of the ‘edgeless university’, the ‘borderless university’ and the ‘collaborative university’. Here, the university is always behind the game, always rather slow to embrace opportunities.

Lastly, there are the philosophers and social theorists, who desist from offering specific proposals but rather focus on the communicative conditions that need to be satisfied by any ‘university’ worthy of the name.

Such an institution could be exemplified in a ‘university of dissensus’ or an ‘ideal speech situation’ or (even more vaguely) a ‘university without condition’. What we receive here, therefore, are abstractions without principles that might guide action.

Forms of imagination

It would be tempting to characterise this whole debate as one lacking in imagination, but that would be unfair. On the contrary, as is evident, there are several forms of imagining of the university, with certain fault-lines.

Those in favour of the entrepreneurial university are full of breezy optimism, while those evincing the standard academic critiques are characterised by a dismal pessimism – to the effect that the world of higher education apparently can be no other than its current state.

Some imaginations work on the surface level – speaking uncritically of ‘quality’, ‘excellence’ and ‘technology’ – while others attempt to dig down to the deep underlying global structures affecting the university. And, as stated, some forms of imagination implicitly endorse the way matters are running for the university, while others seek to critique it.

Poverty of imagination

There are three points here.

Firstly, very few of the ideas of the university are emerging into the public debate. Doubtless, one reason for that is that the majority of those ideas do not fit with the mood of our time. That mood is one of ‘value for money from public services’, ‘the customer pays’ and the belief that a test of an enterprise is the presence of purchasers for it.

There has emerged, therefore, a ‘discursive regime’ in which the idea of the entrepreneurial university sits very nicely. It is hardly surprising if other ideas of the university find it difficult to make headway.

Secondly, perhaps those ideas in the literature don’t deserve to enjoy wide circulation. After all, an imaginative idea of the university is not necessarily a good idea. Perhaps more than an increase in the ideas of the university, we need better ideas.

Thirdly, we can still speak of a poverty of the imagination. By and large, we lack ideas of the university that are at once critical in tone, positive in spirit, and with an awareness of the deep and global structures that undergird universities.

Much of the academic literature is, as stated, unduly pessimistic: can we therefore be at once realistic about the situation in which the university finds itself worldwide and yet be optimistic, coming forth with imaginative ideas about the university that just might be brought off, even if the cards are stacked against them?

What are needed, surely, are not merely utopias of the university but feasible utopias.

A feasible utopia?

Here is a contender for being one such feasible utopia, namely that of the ‘ecological university’.

The ecological university would be intertwined – at very deep levels of its being – with the global knowledge economy and with forces for marketisation and competition. But it would look for spaces in which it could live out the values and ideas deeply embedded in the university – of truthfulness, inquiry, critical dialogue, rational dispute and even iconoclastic endeavour.

The ecological university would also be sensitive to its engaging with different ecologies, such as those of knowledge, culture, institutions and the economy; and it would be sensitive to these ecologies working at all levels, from that of the individual person through communities and societies to the world itself.

Further, while the idea of ecology is characteristically associated with that of sustainability, the ecological university would not be satisfied with that idea – with merely sustaining students, or society or even the world – but would look to promote well-being at every level.


The main point of this article is to argue for more imagination in thinking about the university; imagination that offers us feasible utopias even. The suggestion here of an ecological university is just one offering in that vein.

But it is perhaps worth noting that a university that wanted to see itself as an ecological university would itself become an imagining university. For the task of becoming an ecological university calls for collective imagining.

The art of university leadership, accordingly, becomes in part one of encouraging and orchestrating collective imagining, so that a university realises its possibilities at every level and in all of its activities.

This, in turn, calls for nothing less than that a new kind of spaciousness should open in our universities, a spaciousness of air, no less.

* Ronald Barnett is emeritus professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His latest book is Imagining the University, Routledge 2013. This is an adapted version of an article that appears in the current edition of International Higher Education.