A tale of two (univer)cities

Once upon a time, there were two universities: The University of Excellence, and Knowledge University. Each one sat on a hill on different sides of the city.

The University of Excellence offered value for money. Its degrees had been rated ‘Excellent’ by the Times Higher and Guardian. The Student Experience Survey yielded a rating of 4.923549 out of five, making the University of Excellence (UoE) the Best University in the Country. The Vice Chancellor stated ‘We welcome this fantastic outcome, absolute proof that our university is the greatest in the land. But, we will strive to achieve even greater success by becoming one of the Best Universities in the World.’ Departments were asked to provide detailed aims and objectives to achieve the university’s Global Leadership 2030 Vision.

The UoE boasted a large number of Centres for collaborative research, handling six-figure sums for projects to address the world’s greatest contemporary challenges: conflict, climate change, poverty, health, new technologies. The University stated on its homepage that it was making a better future for all. The University was proud of its Global Leaders, carrying out ground-breaking research in partnership with government, business, and large NGOs.

The University’s teaching was Excellent. Students could expect a range of learning resources, feedback, a range of assessment practices, work experience, an online learning diary, and transferable skills training. All of these things were meticulously audited. The University’s Learning Resource Hub – a £4,000,000 investment – gave students plenty of well-lit space to interact with the online resources offered by the UoE. The UoE’s degrees offered students excellent career prospects, something enhanced by the many partnerships and collaborations with large companies. The learning experience offered by the UoE was nothing short of Excellent.

Across the city, on another hill, sat the Knowledge University. The knowledge university did not have a new Learning Resource Hub, it had a Library which was now so full of books that it had opened an Annex in a nearby building. Sometimes students had to go to both buildings to get the books they needed. The Knowledge University was always in the middle of the Excellence league tables. It did not pull in multi-million pound research. It did not offer students high-tech learning resources. It did not have a Vision. In many ways, its governance structures were imperfect and inefficient, driven by a variety of agendas such as the well-being and preferences of lecturers.

As a result, lots of lecturers found that they could do more or less what they wanted. Students chose their courses from less regulated curricula, found teaching methods very different, were expected to write long essays which was very difficult and to some degree risky. Nevertheless, they had more time with their lecturing staff. KU had one or two Global Leaders but it also had a more motley collection of academics, some of whom taught a lot, some of whom researched a lot, some of whom published a lot, some of whom published a bit, some of whom were lost in research that might one day become a great book. Some, but not many, became rusticated.

At KU, all of the staff were less Excellent but a lot happier. At KU, students were less certain, more adventurous, taught by all sorts of odd fish. A lot was expected of the students. Without a Vision or a Strategy Plan, lecturers cleaved to a deep understanding of intellectual ambition, hard work, diverse lines of inquiry, and collegial-adversarial critique… all for their own intrinsic purposes. Sometimes things went wrong for some. Sometimes, students failed or got lost in the peculiarities of their programme. But, by and large, students got a challenging unorthodox experience of intellectual exploration quite unlike that they would get as customers of a service provider.

Sometimes, procedures would be clunky in ways that would make onlooking Management Professionals from the UoE impatient to create a Matrix or a Performance Framework. But KU felt like that sort of approach was a solution worse than the problem. Homogenised, heavily audited, work-intensifying, and authoritarian reflexes were resisted. Slower, riskier, deeper intellectual cultures were jealously guarded. Fees were reduced to find a niche in the student market. What money there was invested in things like damproofing the Library Annexe properly, and providing a subsidy for the Student Union café so that indebted students could always get a coffee.


Across the city, the two universities watched each other. Although they were both universities they were very different and eyed each other with guarded enmity. Then, one magical day something happened: a strike! As soon as the clock struck eight on a Thursday morning, the whole landscape of the city mysteriously changed. Tectonic plates shifted. Then there were no longer two universities but one. But, things were not as straightforward as that.

Look again. The single standing university was almost empty. It was only inside the central offices that the six-figure salaried and neoliberal managerials sat, refining their strategies, their income loan and investment plans, their public relations branding. Some odd university, this. Where are the lecturers? Where are the students?

And, look again. There on the peripheries. Groups of lecturers standing together. They are talking about the conditions of work, they are talking about the values of teaching and learning, they are discussing the future of higher education, they are talking about agency and struggle. And, they are joined by groups of students, students who are excited to escape the University of Excellence with its empty signifiers and financialised metaphors. In the public spaces public knowledge emerges, discussions flourish. Heroic Professional Services people come out of their buildings and offer cups of tea.

Inside the buildings, a powerpoint about Future Excellence beams out to a forlorn scattering of people. Outside the buildings, people move, talk, listen without the assistance of corporate software.

Inside the buildings, things are quiet. Outside the buildings, things are buzzing.

One day, when the strike has ended, the two universities will separate apart once more. Which hill would you prefer to be on?

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