The liminal university: Competing paradigms and implications for educational research

Year: 2019

Author: Benade, Leon

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

For practical purposes, universities or higher education are characterised by the establishment, development, dissemination and maintenance of higher forms of knowledge. Traditionally, this knowledge has been disciplinary knowledge, supporting the university in its role as the guardian of reason in society, and as a place of preparation for the professional life. Against this image is the location of university education in the service of the market, the university as a service provider and the student as consumer. This neoliberalisation of university education is mirrored in global economic trends towards the massification of higher education, qualification inflation and stagnant or even decreasing state resources applied to university education.

In this presentation, I suggest that to persist holding onto the traditional conception of the university will leave it to stand uncertainly, with one foot in an Oxbridge world, and another in a digitised, borderless global marketplace, all the while producing outcomes that benefit an elite. With a notion of ‘justice’ as working towards conceptions of the ‘good life’ in the background, I revisit some of the salient features of these contrary conceptions, by reference to the provisions of the New Zealand Education Act pertaining to the definition of a university, and by highlighting an exemplar vision of a typical neoliberal university (which could apply equally to (m)any universities of its type). Two statistical examples illuminate forms of social imbalance in the outcomes of higher education. Two possible solutions to both the paradoxical nature of the university and its unjust outcomes are considered, each one appealing to different principles of justice—democratic access to university education against epistemic access. I settle on the latter, suggesting reasons for so doing, and conclude by suggesting practical areas of focus for educational research, and various strategies and practices for enhancing epistemic access.

This presentation is influenced by my personal interest in critical theory and political philosophy, and by my considerations of school-level curriculum transformation in the context of rampant calls for ‘future focussed education’. The methodology of this presentation is framed on the critical analysis of key government statistical and university documents in the public domain. The notions of ‘justice’ and ‘epistemic access’ have been developed respectively on the work of the American political philosopher, Michael Sandel, and late South African philosopher of education, Wally Morrow.