The crisis and crises of the public university

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Alcir Pécora*

Contemporary reflection on the university is guided by debates based mainly on a decisive book: the The Idea of ​​a University, by John Henry Newman, published in London, in 1852. Many other scholars have written on the subject since then, to the extent that it is reasonable to imagine a particular discursive genre receiving the denomination of “idea of ​​the University”, as proposed by Stefan Collini , author of What are Universities for (London, Penguin, 2012) and, more recently, from Speaking of Universities (Londres, Verso, 2017), books that make a harsh diagnosis of the English university, which has undergone radical transformations, in the context of a troubled present.

Understanding the “idea of ​​the University” as a genre, for Collini, is important for two key reasons. The first is to emphasize a striking common trait in these speeches, which goes back to the time of its foundation with Newman. The authors who think about the University, even when they have frontally opposing positions – such as those who want it to carry out pure research, without ties to external demands, or those who defend its performance associated with industry or social progress – also end up understanding the present her as a moment of decline.

This nostalgic original fact can often be inconvenient for a lucid analysis of the contemporary situation of the University, especially when it leads to a mythification of the past, but, dialectically, it does not fail to highlight a second decisive point of the genre, which concerns the need that the University itself has to periodically suspend its routine, its everyday research activities, in order to rethink its own nature and the nuclear objectives to which it must turn.

This is, in fact, the main reason why Collini called his book “Speaking of…”, as he precisely intends to value those moments of conversation in which university practice is suspended, even when successful, in favor of a reflection focused on oneself. same. “Talking about”, that is, stopping and thinking, rethinking your purposes, would be at the heart of University life and anyone who disdains conversation as a phenomenon foreign to the most decisive university work would be wrong. On the contrary, it is an activity that is absolutely unique to the University, even when it brings the inconvenience of a bitter or melancholic tone.

Wang Qinsong's photo

Even more so because, currently, the transformations are too radical to be ignored. The first of these radical changes to consider is that produced by globalization. Today, any reflection on the university has international implications that were unthinkable before. The discussion scenario has shifted to a much broader and interdependent context, which directly affects the way we think and write. This globalized dimension, by itself, prevents any attempt to return to the interpretative models practiced until recently, which were fundamentally based on a nationalist perspective.

A second transformation that seems impossible to be abstracted from the present we live in is that of technological innovations, which completely altered the researcher's most basic activities. Just think, to give a simple example, of the alteration suffered by the idea of ​​publication. In my student days, the time between production and publication was considerable. And not only was the production time longer, with deadlines less tight and threatening than today: there was also a complicated history between production and publication, in which many scrutiny passed, from academic authorities to dissemination vehicles. You had no way to self-publish, on any kind of platform: neither digital nor print. And no one even thought about publishing, before keeping the writing with him for a long time, slowly birthed and timidly entrusted, first to his closest colleagues, then to his supervisor, until it ended up in a magazine or newspaper. Today, the gap between writing and publishing is much shorter, even though some prestigious journals remain rigorous in their evaluation practices.

This almost suppression of the time between production and publication goes far beyond scientific articles: it reached the most commonplace habits. It's hard to imagine any of us, even the oldest, spending a lot of time away from emails, chat apps, social networks. And those most resistant to this risk feeling a little out of touch. I mean, the fact that almost everyone — in academia and beyond — has become accustomed to having a computer and cell phone at hand profoundly alters personal relationships, in addition to altering the way science is done. It also changes our idea of ​​writing, communication, sociability and even what we imagine as the most intimate personality.

The third radical turning point of the present, in which the university is inserted, arises within a very clear political course: in the Western context, the University comes out of the second war, with a predominance of a social democratic perspective, in which the State is strengthened as an instrument of social well-being, to a perspective in which the core of decisions is guided by the economy or “market society”, to the point of leaving almost no space free of its influence.

Cost-benefit calculations, machine downsizing, collection and investment, in short, buying and selling — even if often without a product, but only formal productivism — are present in all social relations, and not just in the economic environment. The University is not exempt from any of this, not even with regard to freedom of chair or its most intimate learning pact between professor and student.

As Collini details, especially in the best ranked universities in the world, the student behaves more and more like a customer and the professor, in turn, becomes a kind of supplier, who has to keep the shelves supplied with things considered useful by the demands students immediately. And the ethics of a good supplier obliges one not to contradict the customer, which is the opposite of what can be admitted within the scope of an educational process, whose formation often requires the contradiction of beliefs and prejudices nurtured in ordinary life.

For the time being, this seems less evident in Brazilian public universities, but as what usually happens, here are late precarizations of what happens in American Universities, there is no doubt that soon we will feel the same way: the scared professors before the protagonism of the demands that are foreign to their disciplines, and students equally upset at not having their consumer rights respected.

Having eyes for such changes, however, is only relevant in a very different sense than that of subjecting the University to the arbitrary imposition of the market, or that of handing it over to a nostalgic imagination of the illo tempore. It is about knowing what can be done better, considering the scope and severity of the problems that affect it. Talking about it is already a relevant step.

*Alcir Pécora Professor at the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) at Unicamp

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