Idea of the Postmodern University

  • Fragmentation of disciplines – modularity
  • Fragmentation of sector – multiversity
  • Mass education
  • Inter-disciplinarity – research
  • Politicalisation of knowledge
  • Distance learning
  • Technological
  • Deconstruction of absolute truth
  • No idea of the university

The 1960 and 70s was an important time for the development of the idea of the university in Britain. The most significant move was from an elite to an expanded system of entry, signalled by the Robbins Committee report. While there is a tendency to think of traditional universities as being based on the medieval model of the university, it is a fact that the present system of universities was created in the 1950 and 1960s with two thirds of British Universities created in this period (Delanty 44).

This expansion was based on satisfying student demand, linked to the imperatives of the post war society which included the need for a more skilled workforce, based around the ‘contemporary enthusiasm for science and technology’ (Scott 1984). Although Robbins suggested a very pragmatic programme for expansion his report was not without its idealism:

‘Not only is it a probable condition for the maintenance of our material position in the world, but, much more, it is an essential condition for the realisation in the modern age of the ideals of a free and democratic society’ (Scott 122).

The outcome of this expansion of HE in this period saw the creation of a number of new universities, East Anglia, Lancaster, York, Warwick, Kent, Stirling and Coleraine, as well as the upgrading of former colleges of advanced technology: Bath, Bradford, Brunel, City, Loughborough, Salford, Surrey, Heriot Watt, Strathclyde and Chelsea to full university status (Scott 1984).

This was the period when the Polytechnics were established as ‘the people’s universities’ replacing the ‘concept of the boarding school university by that of the urban community university’ (Ainley 1994 9). The Open University was created in 1969 as an institution not directly associated with a specific location, notwithstanding its HQ in the new city of Milton Keynes, where learning would take place at a distance for cohorts of part-time students, mainly through correspondence and by utilising the new power of television and radio. The importance of television and radio for the effective delivery of course materials meant that the Open University was originally to be known as the ‘University of the Air’.

Kerr’s describes this expansion of the university in terms of the idea of the university: there was not now one type of university but a multitude of universities: a ‘multiversity’ and with it the end of the idea of the university (Delanty 45):

The ‘Idea of a University’ was a village with its priests. The ‘Idea of a Modern University’ was a town – a one-industry town – with its own intellectual oligarchy. The ‘Idea of a Multiversity’ is a city of infinite variety. Some get lost in the city; some rise to the top within it; most fashion their lives within one of its many subcultures. There is less sense of community than in the village but also less sense of confinement. There is less sense of purpose than within the town but there are more ways to excel’ (Smith and Webster 1997 33-34).

If universities were now appearing in dramatic new forms, there was another challenge to the notion of the idea of the university emerging from within the university itself. This challenge was not simply accommodating the increasing numbers of students or adapting to new types of academic institutions, but involved the status of knowledge and science in society. Delanty (2001 60) refers to this process as ‘the politicalisation of knowledge and its public role in society’. This challenge questioned not only the nature and knowledge in society, but with it the existence and role and nature of the university itself.

This politicalisation of knowledge became manifest by the ways in which universities became the sites of social and political unrest. From 1968 onwards in Paris and around the world, students – often in collaboration with trade unions, feminists, peace campaigners and other civil rights activists – led wave after wave of protest. In some countries these protests brought governments and political structures to the point of collapse (Ali and Watkins 1998)

Delanty ( 2001) relates this activity in terms of the idea of the university. He argues that the university has now become a site of contested knowledge, and with it the landscape of the university had been transformed into a space through which a more democratic form of citizenship might emerge (Delanty 2001 43). Universities were now playing a key role in providing the intellectual space for these new democratic and progressive movements to flourish (Delanty 2001 64), and in doing so providing a new basis for the idea of the university.

What is significant about this new ideal is that it calls into question not just the nature and role of the university but the nature of knowledge itself. In 1979 Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote a report for the Canadian government on the status and condition of knowledge and science. For Lyotard knowledge and the activities that produced it had been overwhelmed by industrial society, but it was a society whose rigorous examination of its own content had undermined the very foundations on which knowledge was constructed. Lyotard referred to this as the postmodern condition.

Lyotard famously describes postmodernism and its relationship to the university:

‘I define postmodernism as incredulity towards meta-narratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in sciences; but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably the crisis of the metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it’ (Lyotard introduction xxxiv 1979).

Lyotard described this process as signalling the end of the university.

This new ideal of the university that emerged in the 1960s has been described as the postmodern university (Smith and Webster 1997 ). The key to the idea of the postmodern university is the way in which teaching and research have come to be redefined. Kant’s coherent subject based faculties were now being disrupted by the craze for inter-disciplinarity in research and modularity in teaching – all of which expressed the increasing fragmentation of knowledge (Delanty 2001 136). This was making it ‘increasingly hard to state the goals which were held in common by all areas of the academic community (Smith and Webster 1997 3). It appeared as if the idea of the university has been completely undermined.

This is reflected in campus design. Temple tells us:

‘This mixing and community-building was, in fact, one of the objectives in the planning of several of the UK’s 1960s universities. Ideas about teaching and learning were, contrary to Edwards’s view, central to this planning. The master-plans of both the Universities of York and Kent, for example, were based on assumptions (not obviously supported by any evidence, incidentally) about teaching and learning being enhanced by staff and students living together, and to an extent working together, in colleges. At York, a distinctive view of higher education guided its early planning: “Care will be taken to avoid the association of a particular college with a particular subject. This might…work against the mixing of different interests and skills which is one of the chief purposes of university education” (University of York, 1962: 10). A similar view was expressed by the founding Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, that each of its colleges should be “a microcosm of the whole University” (Martin, 1990: 130). Other 1960s universities took different planning approaches, but each had what would now be called a model of teaching and learning at the centre of its planning, which influenced campus design and space use. Warwick, for example, like Sussex, planned for interdisciplinary schools of studies created around core subjects, rather than the then-usual single-subject honours degree courses (Burgess, 1991: 96). (Temple 15 and 16).

All of this expressed in the emergence of the idea of the campus – Malcolm Bradbury, in the campus novel, reminds us that a university campus is ‘one of those dominant modern environments of multi-functionality that modern man creates, close it down as a university…and you could open it again as a factory, a prison, a shopping precinct (Bradbury History Man in Showalter 2005 58)

The result is that the idea of the university appears to be completely lost.

Further Reading (not complete)

Ainley, P. (1994) ‘Degrees of Difference, Higher Education in the 1990s’, Lawrence and Wishart

Ali, T and Watkins, S. (1998) 1968

Bradbury, M. (1975) The History Man

Delanty, G. (2001) Challenging Knowledge: The University in the Knowledge Society, The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Buckingham and Philadelphia

Lyotard, F. (1979) The Postmodern Condition, Manchester University Press

Smith, A. and Webster, F. (eds) (1997) The Postmodern University: Contested Visions of Higher Education in Society, Society for Research in Higher Education and the Open University Press, Buckingham

Scott, P. (1984) The Crisis of the University, Croom Helm, London

Showalter, E. (2005) Faculty Towers, University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania