Boaventura de Sousa Santos: The university in the twenty-first century

Boaventura de Sousa Santos: The university in the twenty-first century
Towards a democratic and emancipatory university reform

The reaction from universities to demands for reform – both from the private sector and society – has been a state of paralysis and resistance in the name of autonomy and academic freedom. The only way universities can recover from their crisis legitimacy, writes Boaventura de Sousa Santos, is through radical democratic restructuring. Countering the brain-drain from poorer to wealthy nations – so far the main result of the transnationalization of education – will only be achieved by embarking on a counter-hegemonic process of globalization creating genuine equality of access.

In an essay published in the early 1990s, [1] I identified three crises facing the university at the end of the twentieth century. First, the crisis of hegemony was the result of contradictions between the traditional functions of the university and those that had come to be attributed to it throughout the twentieth century. On the one hand, the production of high culture, critical thinking, and exemplary scientific and humanistic knowledge, necessary for the training of the elites, which had been the concern of the university since the European Middle Ages. On the other, the production of average cultural standards and instrumental knowledge, useful for the training of the qualified labour force demanded by capitalist development. The university's inability fully to carry out contradictory functions led the State and its economic agents to look beyond it for alternative means to attain these objectives. When it stopped being the only institution of higher education and research production, the university entered a crisis of hegemony.

The second crisis was a crisis of legitimacy, provoked by the fact that the university ceased to be a consensual institution in view of the contradiction between the hierarchization of specialized knowledge through restrictions of access and credentialing of competencies, on the one hand, and the social and political demands for a democratized university and equal opportunity for the children of the working class, on the other. Finally, the institutional crisis was the result of the contradiction between the demand for autonomy in the definition of the university's values and objectives and the growing pressure to hold it to the same criteria of efficiency, productivity, and social responsibility that private enterprises face.

In that essay I analysed in some detail each one of the abovementioned crises and the way they were managed by the university, especially in the central countries. My analysis was centred on public universities. I showed that, far from being able to solve its crises, the university, relying on its long institutional memory and the ambiguities of its administrative profile, tended to manage them formulaically to avoid their growing out of control. This pattern of action depended on external pressures (it was reactive), incorporated more or less acritically external social and institutional logics (it was dependent) and was blind to medium- or long-range perspectives (it was immediatist).

What has happened in the past two decades? How can we characterize the situation in which we find ourselves? What are possible responses to the problems that the university faces today? (Sigue)

Eurozine, 08/08/10