Why did you decide to write The Good University?
Because I think organized knowledge matters for a democratic, sustainable world. Universities are at the centre of the economy of knowledge. And universities are in trouble.
I’ve worked in universities all my adult life, and I’ve tried, through the years, to make them more relevant to social needs, and more democratic. By the 1990s universities were changing in a new way. The sector was growing, but so was corporatization and managerial control. Fees were re-introduced, and insecurity among university workers was rising.
In 2013 a big industrial struggle broke out at the University of Sydney. I took an active part in the union’s campaign, and it really focused my thinking. On the picket line I had time to think about strategy. Universities on the corporate model are headed in a very destructive direction, and we need to resist that. But we also need to offer better models. That means re-thinking the whole spectrum of what universities do, and thinking about universities on a world scale. This book is the result.
What should we know about experimental and reform universities?
Firstly, there have been a lot of them. They range from the amazing ‘Flying University’ in 19th century Poland, to the anti-colonial college set up in Bengal by Rabindranath Tagore, to the many radical Free Universities of the 1960s, to the indigenous-knowledge and citizen-science projects of today. We have a tremendous wealth of experience in making new curricula, and changing the way teaching, learning and research all work.
Secondly, as these examples show, experimental and reform universities are very diverse. The neoliberal ‘League Tables’ that dominate media discussions today teach us there is only one model of a good university: Harvard. But there are many possible models! There are different knowledge formations, there are different communities to be served, there are different workforces, and there are different social needs.
What did you uncover in the process of writing The Good University?
I know some of this history of reform, since I was involved in setting up a Free University in the 1960s, and I taught in Australian ‘greenfields’ universities later. But I didn’t know a fraction of the whole story. The more I learned about the range of experiment and imagination in higher education, especially around the colonial and post-colonial world, the more I was impressed by it.
I wasn’t exactly surprised, but I was depressed, to find that most of the debate about reforming universities ignores half their workforce: the ‘operations workers’ as I call them in the book. Much of the discussion goes on as if academics and managers were the only people who matter. But real academic work – the teaching, the research, the administration – depends on a whole series of contributions from other workers. Grassroots cooperation and coordination between different groups of workers is the secret of how universities really operate.
Which authors or thinkers have inspired your work?
Now that’s a dangerous question to ask an academic who has thousands of file cards about authors she has read! But I’ll have a go. My understanding of the global economy of knowledge was inspired by the philosopher Paulin Hountondji, especially his long essay ‘Recentring Africa’ in the book Endogenous Knowledge. When I first read his analysis of the experience of intellectual workers in West Africa I shivered – it was so close to what I and others had experienced half a world away on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
For a sense of the radical way that Global South research might re-shape a field of knowledge, in my own domain of social science, I’m indebted above all to Bina Agarwal. Her book A Field of One’s Own: a masterly synthesis of research about gender relations, land ownership and land use in south Asia, treats issues that global-North social science had effectively ignored but are fundamental.
And for creative connection between apparently irreconcilable knowledge formations, I have been inspired by the late Ali Shariati. His synthesis of radical sociology and Shi’ite theology produced, among other things, a remarkable theory of intellectuals and a sharp analysis of neo-colonial society. Shariati was a creative educational thinker who developed a striking plan for a participatory Islamic university, never realized because of his premature death.