On Universities – JM Coetzee

In Diary of a Bad Year – his new novel – Coetzee has a short chapter in amongst his musings on various themes that concern the intellectual today. The origins of the State, Machiavelli, anarchism, .. and Universities (I’m still reading the book and finding it quite complex but rewarding to read the three parallel narratives all at once, instead of reading one right through and then going on to the next …).

The writer is no stranger to universities having taught at the University of Cape Town for most of his academic career. If we have anything in common we are both ex-South African academics who now live in the Antipodes (Coetzee is in Adelaide) – but beyond that very minor coincidence I remain totally in awe of his writing.

Having dealt to postmodern literary theory in the previous ‘chapter’ (it’s not a conventional book at all in terms of structure) Coetzee laments the loss of the powers of the professoriate to the scrutiny of professsional managers, as the creeping managerialism of the 80s and 90s eroded ‘academic freedom’. He recalls Poland under Communist rule, where dissident academics held covert night classes on topics that were banned from the official curriculum decided by the State: “If the spirit of the university is to survive, something along those lines may have to come into being in countries where tertiary education has become wholly subordinate to business principles. In other words, the real university may have to move into people’s homes and grant degrees for which the sole backing will be the names of the scholars who sign the certificates.” (p31-32, emphasis added)

Maybe I should put that on the agenda for the next Academic Board meeting!

But seriously, isn’t the real university already in our homes ? Wiki-pedia/wiki-versity, Open knowledge/content, the whole internet itself. The ‘network way’, infinite connectivism, and the revival of Illich, PLEs and self-directed autonomous learning. But here in the line above is the kernel of the debate – what is a degree and who pays for it, legitimates and accredits it, awards it ?? The content of knowledge has been set free from its ivory container, but the official stamp of validation that you know it is still very much locked up in the degree-granting system (see Joseph Axelrod’s The University Teacher as Artist for an early take on this…).

So the problem is not in increasing the amount of open content and developing more complex social and connective software to link learners. The relentless iterating towards openness driven by networked educational technologies is now bumping up against the ‘technologies of power’ – in Foucault’s phrase – that lock students into pathways and control the degree-granting system. I spoke about this at e-Fest but as yet don’t see exactly how the institution – with the increasing dominance of corporate managerialism and ever-declining government funding – is going to meekly surrender the power of awarding qualifications to individual scholars. Perhaps it may happen that informal webs and extra-mural communities of practice will begin to gain some traction as learners grow increasingly frustrated with rigid curricula – in this Illichian vision the ‘degree’ is legitimated by the collective as the novice is inducted into disciplinary expertise. Open-source BAs and BScs …. ? Well why not – we have open-source pharmaceuticals, Moodle and Linux. But the sheer scale of the economic investment in the university is such that it will take a total dismantling of the system to achieve a ‘personal degree-gaining environment’….

The real university is in our homes, for free, but we still have to pay for the degree.

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2 Responses to On Universities – JM Coetzee

  1. ailsa says:

    i live in hope that the scope of my practice goes beyond certification 🙂 Having worked in mental health certifying leaves a bad taste.
    A possibility is certification through non formal RPL- however a fiscally driven education institution would be/is unwilling.
    Deschooling society has never been more confronted than it is today- the education being freely available but the issue now becomes one of more overt power and control. Viva the revolution ?
    Alternately the institutions soften the walls of the ivory towers such that learning is less geographically located and more facilitative…
    Doesnt move the fiscal shackles though.
    Might need to start posting that the views expressed are my own and do not in any way reflect the views of my empoyeeing institution!

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