Is Academia really that UNIKE?

Rapidly written impressions from a first day at the conference UNIKE, Copenhagen 15-17 June 2016.

My first positive surprise: I had expected long, compact, academic talks with very little audacity and thinking out of the box. And I had expected to see a homogenous crowd of scholars all focused on furthering their own career. What I actually saw whas a very diverse group of people from all over the world, many of which seeming to genuinely being ready to go all-in to rethink the current paradigm in Higher Education.
Here are some of my take-aways from the day.

Winter is coming…

Ove K. Pedersen’s opening talk was enlightning, although at times a little repetitive. The basic message he got through to me was about the way that the current transformations in Higher Education throughout the Western world follow parallel tracks although – at the same time – these transformations are happening in nationally unique ways, according to historical aspects in each country. The same transnational trend where universities are being urged to find alternative ressources in public-private partnerships, for instance, is being played out in different ways: partnerships are being created, but there are different national ideas about whom is eligible for being a partner. In what Pedersen terms as a US-Germany model, partnerships are being made between universities and the military industrial complex, and not with think tanks. In the Nordic model it’s the other way around. The difference has to do with the way universities have historically been conceived of in the different countries. In US-Germany, the raison d’être of universities is linked with questions of national security and industrial power, whereas in the Nordic states the link is with policies of national welfare and wellbeing. According to Ove K Pedersen. I guess, the good news is that although winter certainly is coming, it’ll strike us differently according to which kingdom we’re serfs to.

To make a connection with the theme of the UNiKE conference, I think that the perspectives that Pedersen has brought to the table can be summed up to a question of how the universities are to a heavy extend submitted to national agendas. Even in a postmodern, postindustrial – and whatever post- you want to add – globalized world. In order to rethink higher education, if we take Pedersen’s points for granted, there is a need for rethinking the relation to the State and the way in which universities are submitted to these national ideologies, influencing the knowledge production i certain directions.

In other words: can a new kind of university – or any other institutioanlisation of a human activity – be concieved in a way where it would be independent of the State and/or the Industry?

This question is – to my understanding – an underlying subject for the group of scholars engaged in one of the 6 themes of the conference, under the headline “Market driven or open-ended higher education?” After listening to the five presentations – nicely orchestrated according to a classical academic hierarchy, first 3 short ‘vignettes’ by the phd-students, and then two heavily loaded presentations by two ‘real’ scholars – I felt a little betrayed by the title. None of the five presenters spend much energy even on coming up with what they understand by ‘market’ or ‘market-driven’. However, I found the presentations genuinely inspirational.

First, Jan Masschelein’s presentation: ‘Excellence or regard? Reclaiming the university as a site for collective public study’. What can I say? The title alone simply inspires! From my own experience with the art world, I can only say that the tyranny of ‘excellence’ is not only weighing on Accademia. Much of what Masschelein talked about in terms of Higher Education, from the concept of ‘the individualized personal learner’, ‘the individual researcher’, to his establishment of a clear connection between excellence, productivity and competition, the exact same thoughts can be applied to the art world and its educational institutions. Indeed, the same perverting tendencies are at play in art ‘production’, where the concept of ‘excellence’ is hooked up with the notion of the aesthetics of the genius, the lone artist sitting in his ivory tower atelier conceiving godlike, highly original works of art, aimed at an anonymous, but awestrong, mass public, craving for enlightenment.

As an alternative to the individualistic employability and product oriented, excellency ridden higher education, Masschelein envisions an alternative inspired by the Universitas Studii of the middle ages in Europe. I wont go into details with his proposition, and I recommend that you check out this text of Masschelein that he provided for the conference (see reference below). Here are some of the keywords from my notes: open ended, flat hierarchy, imaginative investigation, studium – not bildung, existential questions regarding our common world.

What we – here I am referring to the Summer University initiative – can learn from Masschelein is a suggestion for a model to imitate. What it doesn’t answer is how to organize this, and I am left with a doubt whether this seemingly golden age of academia was actually simply a passtime exclusively accesible for a small class of privileged people.

In her talk entitled “Pedagogies of pluriversality” Sarah Amsler attacked the tendency of the current university for, as she termed it, providing prepacked intellectual commodities. Her presentation was rather fast paced, causing a certain numbing in this listener, and I am therefore not sure that I can refer her ideas as faithfully as I would want. However, here are some of the scraps, I did collect. What I heard Amsler say, is that education as an institutionalized practice has developed in a direction, where it’s simply not sustainable anymore, and we should simply “let the educational ship sink”. In her plead for “other kinds of learning” she talked about ‘unlearning’, ‘counter-hegemonic learning’, ‘epistemic disobedience’, and ‘cognitive and educational justice’. As I didn’t feel completely confident with my own capacity for storing the 500 words per second pace of the presentation, I would rather if I could get access to the presentation on paper before concluding anything substantial. For now, I can just say that the scraps i did collect from the talk really resonate with many of the thoughts I am having myself, in connection with my engagement with ‘the Summer University’. From a perspective of a hands-on approach to this initiative, I think that what we can draw from Amsler is an arsenal of intellectual ammunition (and not prepacked commodities) to think with in our development of a conceptual framework.

As the title of my text insinuates, I would like to challenge the connotation that ‘UNIKE’ calls for. Although there were participants at the conference voicing heretical questions whether we actually need universities at all – answering them immediately in the positive, though – what I felt was a general anxiety. The idea of an open ended university, based on the idea of a hierarchical flattening, and  a blurring of the borders between who’s inside – who are undeniably gatekeepers, and undeniably privileged (although increasingly precarious) – and who’s outside. When this discussion is taken exclusively by those who are inside, as is the case at the UNIKE conference, I can’t see the discussion if not in a slight pseudo light. These heretical ideas about university, when proposed by insiders, cannot be understood otherwise than as an existential threat to them. And I can’t help feeling that these discussions will always have a certain hollowness to them. It might not be the organizer’s point, but the uniqueness alluded to in the title of the conference, does it basically have to do with an underlying idea about scholars being unique, and having a special, officially endorsed, access to real knowledge?

To break up this basic contradiction, I believe that a key question has to do with the relation between knowledge and economy. These are the two last letters of the conference’s acronym, and I came to think that there needs to be an ‘S’ added to it. That would kind of destroy the sexiness of it, but ‘UNISKE’ would definitely rule out the elitist suspicion I touched on above. My point is that without rethinking Economy, it doesn’t make much sense to try to rethink Knowledge Economy. What I heard as a refrain throughout the day was a call for more funding, and since the market was unanimously staged as a bad thing, we were left with the State, as a (sole) source for funding. However, – echoing Amsler’s sinking educational ship (quoting to Gustavo Estava)- I simply do not see a possibility for any change towards an economic framework for a new meaningful way to conceive the university based on funding from the State in the near – or far – future. It’s not gonna happen. This is where the ‘S’ comes into the picture. In order to rethink thinking and knowledge, we have to rethink the relationship between the economical and the social. Many of the propositions at the conference pointed towards what I would call a ‘Social Knowledge Economy’. How can we synthesize these propositions into viable alternatives/ parallel structures to the existing way?


Maaschelein (2015) Lessons of/for Europe Reclaiming the School and the University. In Gielen: No culture, no Europe : on the foundation of politics. Amsterdam: Valiz.



    1. Thanks for reading the blog, Ross, and thanks for the feedback:-)

      I did stumble upon the Lincoln based project in my research in connection with our initiative. It’s a rather voluminous project, so maybe I could ask you to pitch in with a few points about how you see the connection, and what’s the learnings to grasp from the project?


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