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Ron Barnett: Will the future ever come?

  • 21 October 2020
  • By Ron Barnett

This blog was kindly contributed by Ron Barnett, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, University College London Institute of Education and Honorary Fellow of St Mary’s University. His latest sole-authored book is The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia. This blog is based on the thoughts offered by Ron at a recent webinar hosted by St Mary’s University. The webinar will be made available in due course on St Mary’s website.

My argument

My argument takes the form of two questions:

  1. Will the future (for higher education) ever come?
  2. Or, if it comes, will it be a better or a worse future?

What’s new?

The Coronavirus brings nothing new to higher education. It reminds us only of matters that we should have already learnt, especially in the wake of global warming, and growing inequalities. The most significant of these is the interconnectivity of the whole world; not just the human and the natural worlds, but human thought as a contributing force. 

The world is in incessant motion, and this brings profound difficulties in determining good and just actions in the world. Even the scientists can’t agree so how can a whole society agree? What is democracy in these circumstances? Who is to speak for the rhinos and the glaciers?

So, in its interconnectivity, the Coronavirus brings us only what we should have already learnt but have failed to learn.


Another lesson is that of the fragility of all of our systems, especially in:

  • Students, both UK and international (as their anxieties grow, their learning falters and their enchantment with their higher education is on an edge)
  • Staff, who are now wilting under the strain of the challenges that they are confronting (in their learning new skills, in their concerns for their students and their whole academic and home lives)
  • University systems as such
  • Learning as such (including difficulties in sustaining learning commitment via programmes built predominantly around learning-at-a-distance).

A world-frame

There is a developing wariness of the West and the emergence of a greater reliance on home systems of higher education. Whereas many countries were willing for the West to educate their students, now much is being invested locally, both at national and regional levels. (South Africa is a hub for African students; Chile is a hub for South American students.) So again, the Coronavirus, in slowing the flow of international students to the West is only speeding a process already in progress.

But, do not forget, scepticism towards higher education may be growing in the West itself, certainly among the wider society and possibly even among would-be students, especially where high levels of fee are levied (notwithstanding those fees being levied on an income-contingent basis). In the UK, at least, we may just see a drift towards technical qualifications, if the state can at last meet that deficit, first announced over two hundred years ago.

Further, both in the UK and more widely, we are likely to see the continuing rise of STEM-related subjects and a diminution of the humanities and the non-mathematical studies. 

The UK

We are likely to see some rebalancing of the tertiary education system towards technical, adult, further, recurrent and lifelong education. At least, there will be renewed talk along these lines.

We are also likely to see continuing efficiencies within universities. Estates will be reviewed to look for income bearing possibilities, whether in sales or rents. The precariat is likely to grow, at least among academic staff. 

The university as an institution

There will be calls, justifiably, for universities to demonstrate the public goods that they are putting into society. I am doubtful, however, that those moves will be accompanied by the necessary sophistication: for example, just how is the worth of universities as moral agents to be identified? At least, I hope that work will be put in hand to enable each university to reveal its own public goods profile.

There has been talk of interdisciplinarity for at least fifty years, and the matter can wait no longer. An interconnected world calls for interconnected knowledges, but the matter has to move from the theorists to become a matter of institutional design. And for that, we need practical principles: just how do we confront a situation where members of different departments neither know each other nor have any wish to do so?

There is renewed talk of ‘the civic university’ but that idea needs to be taken much further, both in depth (such that universities reach deeply into their communities as ‘communiversities’, as is being suggested) and also widen their reach – as prompted by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. 

In all of this, leadership – at last – is likely to come into its own, alongside management. Both leadership and management are crucial but nothing is gained by their conflation.

Students and their education

We should distinguish between curriculum (what is taught) from pedagogy (how it is to be taught). Here, too, both are vital but they call for separate attention.

The higher education curriculum is going to have to be fundamentally rethought, so that it is parsimonious. Time has to be given to allow students to breathe, to think for themselves, to work things out under their own steam, and to thrive in all manner of challenging situations. Only so will students come to see the bigger picture, of themselves in an interconnected world.

Pedagogy has also to come into its own, such that students are put on their mettle, being encouraged to reach a situation of authoritative commitment in a world of indeterminacy. Much can be learnt from an initiative such as Michael Sandel as ‘The Public Philosopher’ (BBC), in which perhaps 50 students from all over the world are held together in an internet space of collective reasoning over profoundly difficult issues.


The university is on a cusp. Malign forces – surveillance, undue competition, incessant talk of skills, a complete loss of academic freedom, a narrowing epistemic space (as STEM marches on) – can sweep through higher education. But more positive aspects could increase – an identification of the public goods of each university, interdisciplinarity, collective work within and across universities, a better balance between the global North and the global South, concerns for the natural world and a renewal of criticality.

The likelihood is that these forces – benign and malign – will play themselves out, turning into post-COVID culture wars of academia in the mid-twenty-first century.

1 comment

  1. hennoun hanane says:

    I am interested in pedagogy, curriculum, ESAP, teacher development.

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