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The function of University

26/01/2011
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Modern Universities resemble a dystopian future, designed of glass and steel. Imbuing a sense of modernity, but the modernity that is reflected in its design, has old values, these values are commonly found with the University of Berlin, and its founder Wilhelm von Humboldt whom founded it in 1810, Humboldt observed “one person would privately reflect and collect, another join with men of his own age, a third find a circle of disciples. Such is the picture to which the state must remain faithful if it wishes to give an institutional form to such indefinite and rather accidental human operations[1]

The ideological parameters that are wrapped around the new glass and steel buildings are the foundations for the university; in the same light that Slavoj Zizek uses toilets to look at other countries ideology.  [2] The buildings themselves become the example, from automatic doors, to the type of glass fitted in the frames. Internationally there is no uniformity regarding the design of these buildings, unlike other institutions such as the church, which impose their ideological function through design.

The economic base that forms our society is based upon means of production, which are the facilities and resources for producing goods. Therein the relations of this production are based on the exchange that is bought and sold. The UK has shifted from a manufacturing economy to that of capital. The production of capital occurs in four forms according to Pierre Bourdieu: Economic capital (cash, assets, bonds), Social Capital (networks of people, shared group activities), Cultural Capital (Knowledge, Skills, Education, Attitudes, Manners), and lastly Symbolic Capital (Acknowledgement or recognition, Knighthoods).[3]

Modern universities are part of the superstructure, under the base-superstructure model.  Universities have been centres of knowledge ever since the first ones, were setup in Paris and Bologna. Knowledge that accumulated at University by means of a qualification is then translated into cultural capital. This recognition process by employers via qualifications allows for the conversion of knowledge into labour and therein allows employers to freely employ based on their needs of capital.

So the needs of the buyers of capital (employers) have a selection of cultural capital (students) to serve their needs for the production.

The nature of the degree is to impose a set of skills, which are economically attractive to employers, as they work on the proxy that qualifications are a means of competence in the workplace. Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin in their study of the UK steel industry surveyed over 5,000 employees from 33 firms and five sectors within the industry itself. The clear majority had either no qualifications; and yet the sector had improved both its productivity and profitability. They state: ‘…it is inappropriate to conclude that there is a lack of competence amongst the steel industry’s (or other sectors’) labour force(s) because the majority of the workforce hold low levels of formal qualifications.[4]

As Chomsky notes: “The eect is that the university serves as an instrument for ensuring the perpetuation of social privilege. In general, there is little if any educational function to the requirement that the university be concerned with certification as well as with education and research. On the contrary, this requirement interferes with its proper function. It is a demand imposed by a society that ensures, in many ways, the preservation of certain forms of privilege and elitism. “

In a wider consensus the word ‘Education’ has been transformed, it is now commonly synonymous with ‘Training’, which is why there is much debate on grade inflation, the idea that standards are slipping, they hold the view that education is nothing more than training, however there are two dominant views of education; the first is that education should fulfill the needs of the marketplace this commonly referred to as instrumental education. It is the ‘pragmatic’ view of education; it is only concerned with indoctrinating a particular worldview. It does this by emphasizing the ‘facts’ the ‘figures’ you do not need to harbor skills, just posses the ‘correct’ information and your qualification will be deemed valuable by employers.

From schools to Higher education, learning outcomes, exams, grades, are engineered to reinforce this system of social order.  If the student does not perform well academically, the consequence of this is reinforced by the notion of poorly paid work, poor conditions, and the condition of poverty. The student that performs well academically achieves high grades, problem-solves, and displays critical thinking in their essays.  This student by way of the wider context, of conformity and submitting to the power-relations as well as succumbing to social engineering, ultimately this is deemed success.  Their parents are proud that they have ‘achieved’ and it signifies to their potential employer, that they are a valuable addition to their business. However, this student does not think autonomously.  They engage and interact in wider society with free abandonment, yet as Marcuse notices the defined freedom only serves in an economic sense (providing growth by production of goods), by purchasing goods (such as education) the consumer believes himself or herself that are ‘happy’ now that their lives promote ‘happiness and fulfilment’ through the acquisition of goods.

The second is establishing awareness about themselves and to critically evaluate society, their choices in life and make decisions autonomously. The courage to act upon one’s belief with the conviction to challenge commonly held assumptions, or axioms.  To establish analytical, and comparative thinking. It is not enough that the student can regurgitate ‘facts’ figures’ and the words of authors long since dead if they cannot apply them to the situation and circumstances that they face in their own lives, to govern their own thoughts and rationality.


A man with a ‘trained mind’ is one who can tackle particular problems that are put to him in a rigorous and competent manner. An ‘educated mind’ suggests much more awareness of the dierent facets and dimensions of such problems. (Peters, 1970: 32)[5]

It is now facing a shift from the institution that sought learning to enrich in a wider context in alignment with the Humboldtian ideal (that is by and large the narrative of higher education) to a technocratic one, now the buildings are ahistorical, and are not seeped in tradition, elitism. Under late British capitalism, universities have shifted in their identity (particularly ‘new’ universities).

As is the case with ‘modernising’, the university becomes a technocratic dream, efficient automatic doors, and ease of access, plenty of light. In its design is espouses a benign authoritarianism. This is clear by the use of glass installed in doors in seminar rooms, they are rectangle in shape, and do not give scope to those inside to view outside. Furthermore, if we take the use of a red light when a lecture room is being occupied, it is the staunch sign of authority, imposing itself. It has been timetabled, so there must be no intrusion, this regimentation is enforced not by force, but by overarching social decorum.

CCTV whilst installed on campus to ‘prevent crime’ which by all means, is unfeasible least not by the notion that monitoring people and their behavior, whilst imposing an order, does not directly ‘prevent the action’ it merely allows for the individual to asses by which means their action may be liable for punishment, thereby resulting in them acting in accordance with the earlier mode of control.

Whereby someone trespasses this set of social conventions, they are met not with anger, but shame. They are seen as intruding, (as if the defined parameters are nothing but psychological) the space that they now occupy is now seen to be trespassed. They are then asked politely to leave, failing this they are removed by force. Discipline is arranged through hegemony, dissidence is controlled through normalization of behavior through the participation of ‘social decorum’.

Independent learning is attained by use of the library, which has gates installed to protect its most valuable asset, its books. The ID cards are necessary to ensure the ‘security’ of the library, and upon entry must be scanned by their barcode to allow entry to the library. This is particularly significant, as students are deemed criminal, or act in a criminal manner, while this has no empirical basis it is the means by which control of knowledge is imposed, the public library on the other hand has no gates, and people are allowed to walk in and out freely.

Normalisation also conceals another facet; it is the orchestration of power. From the marks that determined status, and privilege in the classical age, were exchanged and/or replaced by classification and hierarchization (Vice chancellor, lecturer etc)

The mechanism of power in university is in part through examination, it is the ceremony of power combining the mechanisms of discipline, the establishment of truth, the observation of individuals that are to be differentiated and judged. (Foucalt, 1977)

The use of the lecture and or seminar room presents the larger question of space, how it is defined and its usage. A further example of stratification of space, instead of the homogenous ideal of the cultivation of learning, under the new technocracy, students have access to some rooms as they study the ‘correct’ courses. Students that are participating in other fields of study are denied access to these rooms, as they are not undertaking the same course.

Furthermore, the public university should be a subversive one, if they teach an intellectualism, an academia through learning outcomes, which is regarded as safe and legitimate.

It manifests itself as protecting the prevailing order and the power relations that are embedded with it. A student that is allowed only to be ‘critical’ in relation to an essay question is not learning to think critically but rather to assess critically.

It does not challenge the prevailing order, and as such does not venture anew so cannot create any fresh concepts or approaches, but rather retreads a line of thought that has already been defined.

Just because there is a prevailing order of power, that is legitimized through variable ways, subversively and non-subversively does not mean that the system by which the structure of university undertakes, is indeed the correct one.

It is of a critical importance towards wider society, given that it formulates social attitudes, and is the primary conduit for accessing ideas, knowledge and thinking.

It is the end of university, which is derived from latin as ‘universitas’ as the whole. Education as a whole is no more. It has been modularized and separated; there are not subjects of study but modules of study. It is here that the shift between the historical institution, its legacy and function has been shifted; in line with the shift in economy, from the post-war manufacturing base economy, to the production of knowledge, the information based economy.

Alongside tuition fees, contact hours, and the regimentation and stratification of space, the university has been coerced into the factory, to institutionalize and moderate, to conform and control, ripe for the labour market.


We must now rebuild the social institution, designed around the aims of intrinsic education. To cultivate thought, and value autonomy, to remove systems of discipline and control, to restore the ‘whole’ that is sorely lacking from university.

Huseyin Kishi (Images and words (c)) 


[1] The Function of the University in a Time of Crisis, Noam Chomsky

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwTJXHNP0bg

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_capital

[4] Different visions of a learning society, 2000

[5] Why Marxist economics should be taught!

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