Building the university to come: strategies, tactics, visions

Universities for a Democratic Society (Part V)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014

Building the universities to come

The final session of the Future U conference was led by a panel of students and academic support workers, and framed by OCUFA president Kate Lawson’s argument that because we cannot see into the future or always identify what constitutes a moment of opportunity in crisis, ‘now is always the moment to act’. Decisions to direct university budgets in one way rather than others, to embrace or query the use of a new technology, to lobby, participate or withdraw are examples of important moments. We enter into the university without knowing how we will be transformed through our work here, she pointed out; we conduct research without knowing where it will lead us, yet in both instances we have some orientation. This is true also of our conduct in the everyday.

Some desires were predictable. The universities of the future should make sense to people (as presently, academics are skilled at publicising negative discourses about the institutions but we do a pretty poor job of publicising and celebrating the benefits of post-secondary education). Future U has no contingent faculty and more students and teachers working in socially stable positions, and it recognises and draws strength from diversity and democratic dissensus.

More interesting, however, was the sense of a collective responsibility to bequeath a better legacy of higher education and university life for generations to come. ‘Future U is a dismal place’, said one person, ‘if we are not prepared to fight for what we believe in’ – starting with the ways we think about the university and our duties to constitute it thusly. Or as another put it, how do we respond when people ‘pull goofy shit out of the air and try to impose it on us’?

It was Janice Folk Dawson, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 1334, who presented some of the most articulate ideas for how we might do this. Her motto, she said, is that ‘what you permit, you promote’ – reminding me of the great US abolitionist Frederick Douglas’s argument that ‘the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress’. Her arguments were various, but stressed concerns about building better relations of friendship, solidarity and commitment between students, faculty and academic support workers within the broader university community, in order to protect and promote higher educational possibilities for all.  Her suggestions included:

  • the creation of forums for sustaining conversations about what is happening in the university, for analysing tendencies and decisions, for developing strategies (including alternative policies, budgets, etc. that may be circulated to raise awareness about the contingency of the ones on offer)


  • working on comprehensive campaigns to change regulatory acts, laws and policies that shape the big business of the university, including the organisation of democratic or managerial governance, regulations on student fees and admissions, the corporate or other form of ownership of assets, etc.)


  • reduce or eliminate higher bureaucratic levels within the institutions and replace these with educators and support staff, compensating all fairly for their service to the university project


  • taking a critical position on the ‘false crises’ created and used by governments to justify the withdrawal of financial support for higher education, reduction in pensions, and privatisation


  • fighting for subsidised and socialised childcare for students, academics and non-academic workers (both day care and night care, for those working night shifts)


  • frequent political organisations and party representatives to advocate opposition to cuts in education budgets and to demand the abolition of privatised fees

There is a need for research that can help us to concretise our alternative university projects which are governed by different sets of values (particularly given that many consequential actions are being imposed without any serious analysis at all), and for recognising that taking the university in these new directions may advance in incremental fashion, just as it has been taken away. For Kate Lawson, this project need not be bound by responses to policies. We can reimagine our relationships with all our communities, including through community-based research and expanding public participation in educational policy making. We can deepen the democratic character of relationships with students and reject discourses that frame educational problems as a result of their ‘deficiencies’. We can embrace radical collegiality, recalling that the term ‘colleague’ refers to ‘one chosen along with others as a partner in office’. And all of this, she said, must be done in the spirit of co-operation, solidarity and sustainability; in other words, with a long-term vision.

At the end of our OCUFA sessions, I was asked to share about some of the experimentation already going on around the world – something apparently neglected in North American contexts where I was told the concept of higher education tends to be limited to contexts where young undergraduate students move straight from high school to four-year university degrees. I said:

Despite the overbearing narratives of enclosure, it is in fact difficult to keep up with all the various work that is going on around the world to resist the economisation of universities, to engage in critical forms of higher learning within formal systems, and to create different kinds of higher educational spaces outside the cultural and institutional systems that exist today.

To be able to see much of this work as experimental in a good and serious way, and as real alternatives, it is helpful to be able to take a wide view about what higher education is and can be, and can be for. Some of it looks like the traditional undergraduate model, but much of it challenges this approach, as well as the economic, social and cultural premises upon which it is built.
There have always been ‘alternative’ universities. Since its founding in 1997, Mondragon University (Basque region, Spain), which is the world’s largest ‘co-operative’ university, has been a source of interest for those interested in whether it is possible to have a locally co-operative university within a global capitalist system. I have never been there, and have only read about it. Apparently it looks like many a European or North American university, but is owned by all its workers, who are also members of the co-operative; the highest paid person other than the rector earns no more than three times as much as the lowest. It is formally democratically governed according to co-operative principles. It is not for profit, but neither non-capitalist; the curriculum of the university is woven tightly with the needs of the many surrounding cooperatives in the Basque region, and, according to Sharyyn Kasmir in The Myth of Mondragon (1996), ‘workers do not consider the firms theirs in any meaningful way’. This, according to Joss Winn, is a problem, and he cites agrees with her that ‘we must be sceptical of models that make business forms rather than people the agents of change’ (Kasmir 1996, p. 196). Nevertheless, the spectre of a ‘co-operative university’ has begun to generate new lines of research exploring the viability of co-operation as a counter-capitalist and post-capitalist form.

Creating experimental universities has been more common in Brazil, within a highly unequal and rapidly expanding higher education system, where Tristan McCowan has identified a range of different models attempting to address problems of access and justice, which are not the Humboldtian or the entrepreneurial or the civic, including the federal universities of Amazonian Integration, Latin American Integration, and Luso-African-Brazilian Integration, and the Federal University of the Southern Frontier. These models, while emphasising co-operation and community involvement, differ from, for example, the Uniterra in Mexico, which was created from a need to escape higher education in order to learn; inspired by anarchist and liberatarian educators, by the Zapatista struggle and schools; by a ‘radical reaction against schools’ in the barrios and villages in Chiapas and Oaxaca.

Once this sort of window is opened onto alternatives, we can fly far away from the world of national university systems and league tables and managerialism, and the horizon of alternatives becomes more vivid. There is a new project, Enlivened Learning, which explores many alternatives across the world – not alternatives to existing systems or institutions of higher education that still look like hegemonic higher education, but activities that challenge us to redefine the very idea of higher education itself. There are also several pieces of research being done to document and map the detailed processes of the many more experimental spaces of alternative higher education around the world, some emerging from the recent occupationist movements, some with longer term roots in community and adult education, some radically democratic projects.

This more generous framing allows us to ask what higher education really is for. Once we remove the meaning of the concept from the structures that give it shape – even if we only methodologically bracket them in our minds to allow space for that imagination of something genuinely other, emergent – then we have to dream, and we have to choose: to judge, to discern…as implied by the original meaning of the word krisis. If we could work and study in any university we want, what would it be like? What would it do? Who would it be for? Who would it be by? What is the difference between popular and higher education, and does it matter? How can we maintain the best knowledge and experiences of traditional universities? How would it relate to other institutions? How would it respond to, fight against, inequality and oppression? How would learning happen? How would we understand knowledge? Who would validate it? Could this sort of model work for all subjects; what about the sciences? What about technology? How would students and teachers be defined, if at all? What relationship to the traditions from which it emerged? To others’ traditions? How would we deal with all the reproductions that would inevitably emerge? How would people live? These kinds of questions are real. They are the kinds of questions you get to ask and answer in varying degrees of liberty when you try to make something different.

These are the kinds of questions we are asking now in an experimental project in Lincoln, the small city where I live in England. It is called the Social Science Centre, and it is a three-year-old higher education co-operative that was born out of anger about the increased student tuition fees and which has since then transformed into something very different. A number of its members have been, and remain, academic social scientists; we still work for the university, not only to preserve these positions but because we believe (albeit to different and shifting degrees) that there is still work to be done and work possible to do. Many other members are not academics, but everyone in the Centre assumes the title and role of scholar. It is not perfect, and it is not large, and it is not not compromised within the system, but it is good, and it is collective, and it offers opportunities not to compromise. Above all, it is a space for learning how much work it takes to create something real, and how to work co-operatively (indeed, this term’s public course is precisely about radical co-operative movements, organisation, principles and education, as part of a reflexive kind of action research). It is building a different kind of intellectual and social community within a place, and creates space to learn as we might do in the university (without the institutionalised insistence on discipline and form) as well as to practice how higher education could be different.

All of this reminded me of a beautiful dialogue between Ira Shor and Paulo Freire, published as ‘The fears and risks of transformation’ (1987). Although primarily about the politics of teaching in compulsory education, it is relevant for those striving towards emancipatory education in the contemporary university as well, for they have to do with the experience of ‘dreaming inside history’.

Ira: Fear comes from the dream you have about the society you want to make and unmake through teaching and other politics.

Paulo: Yes! Fear exists in you precisely because you have the dream. If your dream was to preserve the status quo, what should you fear then? […] Fear comes from your political dream, and if you deny the fear you deny your dream.
What I like more and more about this piece is that it does not end here, in some sort of uncritically stupid and macho heroics, but explores the importance of analysis, critique, strategy and courage in educational politics.

Freire: […] In some moments…you discover that today historically it is not possible to do a certain kind of action because the repression should come easily on you. Then, it is as if your fear is more or less domesticated by your clarity. You know that in that moment it is impossible to walk one kilometre. So, you walk 800 meters! And you wait for tomorrow to walk more, when another 200 meters can be walked. Of course, one of the serious questions is how to learn the position where the limit is. You don’t find that in books! […]

Ira: The same applies to educational politics. Teachers learn the limits for doing liberatory education by doing it. It’s the same for any act of political transformation. By attempting transformation, we learn how to do it and also the limits within which we act. When we learn limits, real limits in our classrooms or in other arenas of society, we also gain some concrete knowledge on how much or even how little can be accomplished right now. Then this concrete feedback on our attempts protects us from wild fantasies of fear that could immobilize us, or which could drive us into ultra-militance if we fail to recognize our limits or it we feel we have to deny our fear and act heroic. If we read our reality well, we don’t imagine repression, don’t project our future punishment for daring opposition, but rather test the actual circumstances of our politics and design our interventions within these limits. […]

Maybe this sounds like a tactic of accommodation. But I think it is much closer to a strategy for what Ernst Bloch called ‘educated hope’ and ‘real possibility’; much closer to a strategy of dialectical materialist and pragmatically utopian transformation. As long, as Shor remarked in the dialogue, ‘the goal of opposition is not to get fired, but to make long opposition…’, then we need not just ‘resistance’ to the capitalist colonization of learning but long opposition and recreation; a project including but far exceeding the people of the university in movements of embodied and insisted critique, opposition, dreaming-within-history and reconstruction. Unless, of course, the aim is to refuse work or to exit the university, which then requires a slightly different conversation. For either route, we need critical care to address the human damage that we are never permitted to speak aloud; as Richard Hall describes it, the bleeding of our souls.

Life is far too short and too precious to waste it on this shit, and there are more possibilities to venture towards than we can possibly imagine from where we presently stand. There is no justification for abstracting one irretrievable second of vital energy into the checking of a box on a meaningless form, and there is violence when we consent to this illogic in order to contribute to our own and others’ subjugation and diminishment. This is why we encounter the paradoxical problem of needing not only to find escape routes from these machineries of hopelessness, but work to sap their power and dismantle them as well; to use the knowledge, liberties, resources and relations of creativity and solidarity and courage at our co-operative disposal to organise our universities, schools, economies and forms of political life in radically democratic ways. This cannot happen within the universities themselves, but as the richness of work at this conference demonstrated, there are here plenty of ways such work can contribute to a broader historical project. And I suspect that in the future we and the generations to come will need these knowledges and experiences even more.

On the birth of Argos Aotearoa

So pleased to announce the publication of Issue No. 1 of Argos Aotearoa, a new journal out of New Zealand whose special issue The University Beside Itself has published my first co-writing project with my dad, Mark Amsler: ‘Imagining Unthinkable Spaces’. Early conversations on the importance of intergenerational analyses of neoliberalisation…

‘Argos aims to circulate writing about topical matters of public and political import that is local, critical and accessible. We believe critical intellectual conversation should be heard here in Aotearoa-New Zealand, not simply published for credit in international fora for more limited and specialised audiences. Of particular interest to us is writing that grounds its concern with the public or political good of place-making in theory or philosophy.’

I don’t know that this isn’t for a certain audience, although perhaps one not so narrowly specialised. But it opens many ways in to critical thought: the defense of thinking and speaking that cares about where it lives, putting the criteria of ruling knowledge in their place, daring to experiment with different forms of reading and inviting others freely, celebrating and militating for a joy of learning where ‘the life-blood of the Spirit is a margin for mistakes, not formatted, not unexplored but gifted’ (Anne Jones 2014).