Towards a more collaborative university

Globalisation and neoliberalism have dramatically changed the ways we view health and education services. In these two arenas, we see the most striking social inequalities and these extend throughout the Global North and South. For example, universities have progressively multiplied in number, with many bogus and unaccredited universities operating in the market, trading online and in-person courses. However, despite the increase in numbers, not everyone has access to higher education.

The well-known sociologist Raewyn Connell, author of Masculinities (2005), Southern Theory (2007) and Gender: In World Perspective (2015), deals in her latest book, The Good University – What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change, with the current turbulent issues through which universities have passed as a result of neoliberalism. This work is a fundamental contribution to the moment we are living in, which is still relatively rarely questioned by academics.

Connell, with her profound knowledge and sharp critical skills, has links with several generations of researchers from various parts of the globe. She has managed brilliantly to sum up in eight chapters the main problems that the global/neoliberal world throws up for universities within the rich Global North and the developing Global South.

In the book, the author reviews several aspects of university culture, from the most important to some apparently banal ones. One thing that Connell makes very clear is that universities are a place of knowledge, research, teaching and learning, but that this only happens when we work together, when we weave knowledge together.

For her, the generation of knowledge is a social process. In this sense, it is vital to consider the university as a whole, as a unit in the service of knowledge, created by humans for humans; all the workforce of the university is crucial to the development of knowledge, she says.

Collaboration between hemispheres

In addition, Connell explores the questions raised by a global knowledge economy which remains predominantly centralised in the Global North. Composed primarily of Western Europe and North America, the global knowledge economy contains the wealthiest, most influential and dominant research centres in the world.

She has been working in depth on the relationship between the imperial Global North and the colonised Global South and she analyses the making of knowledge between these two hemispheres.

Connell gives an excellent example, among others, of how Latin America has been trying to manage the economy of knowledge through the creation of SciELO, a digital platform formed mainly by Latin American countries, Portugal, Spain and South Africa. It shares scientific articles free of charge in contrast with the Global North where scholars’ articles are for sale, although the authors are not paid for them.

In 2013, Jorge Balán edited Latin America's New Knowledge Economy: Higher education, government, and international collaboration, an attempt to underline some current issues in the knowledge economy in certain Latin American countries. This is also an excellent source for researchers on Latin America.

Connell’s book offers an excellent critique of how universities have broadened their educational marketing campaign. Desperate to sell courses as products and trading on universities’ name and institutional prestige, universities have nevertheless not been able to guarantee any future career for their students in the labour market.

It is interesting to note that those who run private universities are entrepreneurs who often do not come from the education sector and that most are not university educated. They are, however, in possession of large sums of money financed by private banks.

Universities are now run by managers who earn mammoth salaries, with their websites selling a perfect image of university training that does not deliver for the labour market. According to Connell, this is one of the consequences of neoliberalism – where anyone with money can compete on the open capital market – but where the winners are always investors seeking financial gain.

In the Global South things get more complicated because developing economies are not in any way liberal, but apply neoliberal policies to create competition. Lack of quality is devastating university education and university professors and lecturers, who earn less and are more likely to work with huge numbers of students on online courses, are being exploited.

Collaboration not competition

Finally, Connell proposes her ideal for the university. She does not by any means propose a return to some kind of medieval institution, but she believes in a university where there is a campus (not only a virtual one), where researchers interact, weaving knowledge together in collaboration with each other rather than in competition.

Indeed, she does not offer a blueprint, but sketches some headline ideas which help us to think what we might be able to change in today’s universities. She envisages a more democratic, engaged, truthful, creative and sustainable institution where the good university is cooperative rather than competitive; with more institutional and regional diversity, a place with a friendlier environment to work in where people share facilities rather than fearing they will lose status, privileges and money.

I believe that Connell’s views are not romantic, idealistic or impossible, even if the present moment is hostile, competitive and somewhat dispiriting.

This book is a must-read for those who have an interest in questioning what is really going on with the university these days; it is also highly suitable for students who are embarking on university studies and also for scholars already established in the academic world.

Dr José Loureiro is an independent scholar and part-time lecturer at AVM Educacional – Cândido Mendes University, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.