Trying to maintain a sense of place and yet address the very real need to adapt to change is the great challenge for universities.

ONE of the more interesting critiques of modern life engages with our sense of place and our sense of belonging. Critics of globalisation have focused on the issue of place from various perspectives. For some there appears to be an expansion of what anthropologist Marc Augé has provocatively called, non-places.

What are non-places? Non-places are essentially places that are interchangeable. Examples of non-places can be airports, fast food chains and shopping malls. Places where you pass though, places where your relationship to the non-place is often purely commercial, transient and instrumental. Places where we “could be anywhere, or nowhere”. We often feel a sense of disassociation from such environments. Non-places according to Auge are: “the spaces of circulation, communication and consumption, where solitudes coexist without creating any social bond or even a social emotion... .”

In an interesting online publication titled Universities in an Era on Non-Lieux, Stephen J. Toope, who was at the time of writing this piece, president and vice-chancellor, The University of British Columbia (he is now the 346th vice chancellor of Cambridge University), wrote in regard to the phenomenon of non-places that: “A constellation of trends is pushing universities in the same direction — toward a homogenisation that undermines our ability to fulfil the mission that has shaped our evolution over centuries. If universities cease to be highly differentiated, specific places with distinctive personalities, we will undermine the intellectual diversity needed to produce the catalysis that ignites new ideas, new discoveries and healthy social, cultural and economic innovation.”

According to Toope: “Three trends come together to undermine the sense of unique place and personality that is required for healthy intellectual biodiversity.”

He writes:

The first driver to uniformity is the ever growing list of global university ranking schemes. By creating similar groups of metrics, the rankings signal that to be outstanding, a university must pursue a limited range of strategies: you can poach “star” researchers, focus on nominating staff for international prizes, and recruit a large number of international staff and students.

There is almost no point in trying to improve the undergraduate student experience. In the ultimate perversity, for business school rankings, you better discourage graduates from doing any public service or from working in “secondary markets”; success is judged in large measure on the basis of graduates’ starting salaries. Uniformity of purpose and method is systematically encouraged and rewarded.

The second powerful impetus towards homogeneity is the increasing tendency of governments to try to “manage” research programmes and enrolment strategies. Most obviously, the desire to promote the acquisition of defined skills needed to fuel short term economic needs is growing apace around the world. Although this desire may seem reasonable, when linked to economic development strategies that are typically cookie-cutter copies of each other, the result is that universities are being pushed to do the same things everywhere. If I see another so-called “innovation strategy” that proposes to tell students that they will only find jobs if they pursue the STEM disciplines, I might just boil over in frustration.

And the increasing tendency of governments to promote “applied research” through industry collaboration at the expense of funding for curiosity-driven research also leads to unhealthy uniformity, supporting the superficial consensus on what we need right now, undermining potentially disruptive discovery that shapes knowledge and changes industries and societies in the longer term.

The most recent impetus towards uniformity is the fixation with the promise of on-line learning, exemplified by Silicon Valley’s investments in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Now, don’t fear a Luddite outburst. I believe that we can learn from MOOCs, and that the intuitive sense that we need to “flip classrooms” and adjust to new learning styles is right. Solid new brain research on learning and retention supports the need to change definitively away from “the sage on the stage”. But I am leery of the promise of master classes taught by the great and the good at a handful of universities being distributed across the globe.

And while it might make sense for relatively standardised approaches to introductory organic chemistry to be agreed upon, I would eschew any attempt to settle on a uniform introduction to “theories of justice” or “the quiet revolution in Quebec” or “gender politics”.

Toope makes his argument and position clear: “If universities lose sight of where they are grounded, if they succumb to the uniformity encouraged by global rankings, government attempts to promote generic economic strategies, and ‘applied’ research at the expense of free and disruptive inquiry, and by the siren call of anonymous on-line learning, then universities are at risk of turning into the non-lieux that Augé descries.”

Toope has shown in his critique of contemporary trends towards homogenisation and the increasing anonymity we experience in our lives as we pass through non-places a very solid grasp of one of the great challenges facing universities in a globalising world. Trying to maintain a sense of place and yet address the very real need to adapt to change is the great challenge for universities. Toope’s argument regarding non-places drawing upon the challenging work of Augé is thought-provoking and worth pondering.

The writer is a lecturer in Education in Australia. Email him at jamesca@deakin.edu.au

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