What is the University for?
We all know that the world we’re living in is at threat. It’s under threat from climate change, from the far right, and from an economy that works for the wealthy rather than the many. And yet we haven’t got a settled view of how to create a better world. In the mid twentieth century there was widespread acceptance that the market need to be managed by the state and through a set of international institutions. Prompted by the need to prevent another global conflict or the spread of revolution, the ruling class were forced to concede better wages and socialisation of large parts of the economy, from health to transport. While it didn’t come close to solving all the world’s problems, it created a period of unprecedented human wellbeing, especially for those in Western Europe and North America.
There is an urgent need to formulate a new set of demands that allow us to create a more equal world, where we stop wrecking the climate and where we promote human liberty as a fundamental good.
Underlying the breakdown of the post-war consensus were both economic and sociological changes. When the decision of oil producing countries to force up the price of oil in the early 1970s created an economic shock, so society changed. The mass society of the mid-20th century was shifting to a society where there was more individual expression. The big institutions that mediated decisions in the immediate post-war period went into decline. The influence of the factory, the trade union, the mass religion have all declined enormously. We now live in a society mediated by the market - which is what sets the parameters of what decisions can be made and how we can make them. While the mass society alienated people, the market society has alienation at its heart. And it is that alienation that so many people are now rejecting.
The era of market domination is coming to an end. People across the world are revolting against the tyranny of markets, financialisation and the deep penetration of pricing into every aspect of our lives. The movement for socialised medicine in the United States, the resistance to £9,000 a year fees in British universities, the resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline all reject the logic of the market. And the rise in Green parties in the UK, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, and the victory of democratic socialist candidates in US primaries shows that this is spreading to political parties as well.
In Edinburgh, students set up a housing cooperative to create a space for community that is not aggressively marketised. A space that is run for the common good, not by letting agents, the gouging vultures of degenerated late capitalism.
But this isn’t enough. We can’t just harness the existing institutions, create spaces that offer alternatives to the existing unjust systems, and elect good leaders of bad parties. We need to create the stories about what kind of world we want to live in. We need to create a new morality, where public good overcomes private profit. And we need to create new ways of working that allow housing, work, leisure, and creativity to take place without exploitation.
When allied to a new economy based on data and automation, the stakes have never been higher. We could create a utopian world where everyone is free to create the communities they need and to fulfill themselves through that process. Or we could end up with a handful of incredibly wealthy people owning everything and leaving us with nothing.
Universities will be vital to this. One of the few institutions to grow through the market era, they can be harnessed to help us understand how to make effective alternatives to marketisation. The Real Edinburgh Futures Institute created during the UCU strike in the first half of 2018 was an excellent example of this. It prefigured different ways of working, living and learning. As one occupier said to me “we learned much more here than we ever would have going to classes”.
Some of what we need to do to make universities the engines of creating a new world is to transform how we create knowledge. Given the increased levels of education, the rapidly changing nature of the world, and the pervasive and ubiquitous data that allows understanding, it is up to all of us to create, share, and develop knowledge. That means that students and academics need to work with citizens to co-create knowledge. It means we need to improve our collective decision making by harnessing online processes that can better allow us to reach consensus. We need to identify and meet both the grand challenges of the world and the local challenges that have so much impact on our lives. Universities can help to solve climate change and make our cities more liveable. All of these things require a reorientation of the structures that underpin our education system. But they are all vital.
The outcome we must all strive for is the creation of communities that nurture our world and all the individuals in it, a world that supports our communities, and individuals who create welcoming communities and a better world.
This new publication - The Rattlecap - springs from the Real Edinburgh Futures Institute, and I hope it helps us to create the new world. I am delighted to be able to make this contribution, as it is one of the most important things that the University is for. And I am excited to read about the ways we can better understand our humanity, our communities, and our world.
*Illustration by Polly Burnay*