Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Pathology of Entrepreneurialism in Universities

Patrick McAndrew's (@openpad) talk at #cetis13 made me reflect on the increasing drive for Universities to be more entrepreneurial and the different forms this takes. Behind initiatives like globalisation, strategic recruitment of AAB students, drives in increasing retention, online initiatives like MOOCs, better analytics, etc, there are latent messages: "be more entrepreneurial", "bring in more money", "increase customer satisfaction", etc. They are the kind of demands that any business would make; they are the fundamental demands that entrepreneurialism makes. As Ronald Barnett (in his recent book "Imagining the University" and in the TES: see has commented, the 'Entrepreneurial University' is the dominant model in the sector. Yet, the idea of a university is deeply contested within the academy itself (Barnett produces a wonderful list of possible 'ideas' of the University!). He argues for the University to be a place for the exploration of 'feasible utopias' (although this has attracted some criticism in the TES, particularly from Simon Blackburn: see

My sympathies are divided between the two sides of the argument: but it is an important argument. Barnett acknowledges his debt to Roy Bhaskar, and his language is somewhat abstract as so much writing around critical realism can be (no doubt this is not Roy's fault, but if one becomes an evangelist, it is easy (ironically) to lose perspective on reality!). I think however, he lands some powerful punches, and there is a dearth of good critical writing about Universities. And Critical Realism can be a powerful way of unblocking one's thinking. Simon Blackburn's comment is much in the vein of my criticism of Sir Ken Robinson: "Well, so everything's terrible and we need more creativity/utopianism/openness/etc... what, exactly, are you going to DO about it, rather than just talk??" Barnett, as Blackburn points out, is short on practical detail.

Universities are asking some very practical questions right now: "how to attract more students? how to increase employability? how to increase retention? how to expand globally?" etc. These are the questions of the entrepreneurial university. But there are many other questions that might be asked in a university. For example, why do we never hear "how do we get students to think better? how do we get people to think about harder problems? how do we increase creativity?". One would have thought in an institution for thinking, these would be important questions. But they are not the questions of the entrepreneurial university. They are questions of the kind of university universities used to be (I don't want to give them a label - but just to say they were places to think).

The entrepreneurial model ignores these questions. It is as if it regards the failure to address the challenges of deep thinking as inconsequential as to their future and viability (and inconsequential on the society that sustains them). This is unlikely to be true, but critical engagement with the issue demands precisely the same kind of deep thinking that is precluded by the entrepreneurial model.

But the entrepreneurial model is where we are and what we've got. The thinkers are having to take shelter (Barnett's shelter, and certainly Blackburn's will probably weather the storm) whilst a brash breed take the steering wheels. But this is very frightening.

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