June 14, 2012 By Yusef J. Progler

Modern University Challenged

This paper begins by reviewing the history of modern universities, noting their changes in terms of societal demands and the availability of funding and with an eye toward understanding their different roles and new outcomes. Based on this understanding, the paper then raises questions about the relevance of curricula to the needs and concerns of our students, communities and societies. It concludes by suggesting that we develop pathways to make knowledge and learning available by means other than through universities, such as through using the Internet, which is widely accessible and appealing for the younger generations in modern societies, and which is among the positive actions we can pursue to move out of this closed circle.

If we want to talk about ‘decolonizing our universities,’ perhaps we have to first identify what has colonized our universities. In some sense, the university itself is a colonized space in terms of curriculum being oriented toward what has been called ‘white studies’ (Churchill 1981) at the expense of other knowledges. While this is well known and efforts are afoot to redress this curricular imbalance, there is another way that universities are colonized that is not as often discussed. Nearly forty years ago, Martin Carnoy (1974) mentioned the idea of ‘colonized knowledge,’ by which he meant not the specific details of curriculum or Eurocentric theories or textbooks and such, but that the overall knowledge system developed in modern universities perpetuates a hierarchical social structure and that the purpose of education within this structure was to provide a channel for upward mobility within this hierarchy without questioning or changing it. In other words, on a more fundamental level than on the level of curriculum, textbooks, methods and theories we need to focus on the university as a colonized space in terms of the mission and the purpose of the university. Of course, this sense of colonized knowledge has connections to the more direct and clearly recognizable forms of colonization. One of these connections is the sense of elitism bolstered by notions of supremacy, in which the university becomes a space for the elite classes to get educated and reproduce themselves and that the knowledge acquired in this way is inherently better than the knowledge outside the university, that managers and researchers are somehow smarter or more worthy of praise than other peoples. So it’s not only the notion that the white man’s knowledge is better or worse than others that needs to be resisted; we also need to resist this elite university based knowledge system and the notion that it is better than the knowledge found in communities, such as among agricultural and industrial workers or among the crafts or a host of other fields and areas of expertise and experience outside the academy.


Despite their connections to pre-modern institutions of learning, most modern universities were established and developed according to the needs of the former colonial system and the modern nation state system that emerged upon the demise of the old system of direct colonialism. The main purpose carried over from one system to the other has been the creation, training and maintenance of an elite class tasked with managing modern societies and thinking on behalf of the public. The elitist ideology behind this system involves expenditures of public funds on higher education in order to produce each new generation of thinkers, engineers, doctors and politicians in the belief that subsidizing this elite would provide benefits for the entire society. Despite its origins in colonialism, this system has more or less thrived for the past century in the Global South. However, it has (not without irony, as I will note later) been in steady decline with the rise of neo-liberalism, which has led some to lament the ‘university in ruins’ (Readings 1997). While the odor of direct forms of colonization remains in the form of elitism and supremacy, they have been reconfigured in some cases from the national to the transnational in that the university is now becoming subservient to the demands of the market (Miyoshi 1998). This is because we’re in a situation now where the demand for a university education is higher than it has ever been. In fact, whatever we might say are the failures of the university, in this sense it has been incredibly successful in convincing ever increasing portions of humanity that a university education is desirable and valuable. But with this increased demand governments are retracting funding or, where there is still state-subsidized education, tightening up access by way of ever more difficult exams and other sorting mechanisms. During the decades that universities have been run with an elitist ideology, increasing numbers of people have been convinced that higher education is the key to success, usually defined as access to well-paid jobs and the accompanying social status. This is fused with a general belief that a university education brings upward mobility for heretofore marginalized social classes. While this might be true in some limited sense, the upward mobility of the few has resulted in the increased marginalization of the many who have gone through the same lengthy and very costly process only to realize that the rewards at the end are few and far between. Nevertheless, the hope for success and mobility continues to increase demands for a university education, although the hope is blinding to the fact that there is no similar rise in demand for the impending increase of graduates. Therefore, higher education has in many cases simply perpetuated the problem of K through 12 national schooling, leaving in its wake ever more of the ‘walking wounded’ who are graduated into a society that has no need or place for them. At the same time, communities and families acting on the hope of upward mobility and access to wealth and power through a university degree are coming under a greater burden in paying for the education of their children, even while the prospect is often bleak of getting a job that leads to a satisfying position and which provides enough income capable of paying back such a great investment.


One tangible outcome of this increase in demand for higher education has been felt in the financial policies impacting universities, which have been emboldened by the neo-liberal ideology coupled with the belief that higher education is no longer in need of public funds that can now be spent elsewhere. This has led to sharp budget cuts for higher education, which has in turn pushed many universities to be run more like corporations in that financial concerns and business slogans are beginning to replace traditional mission statements. What matters now, in a crude economic sense, is survival of the fittest, meaning those that can raise their own funds. In other words, in many places the corporate university is now replacing the national university. Readings (1997) had identified this as a shift away from the traditional research university to the ‘university of excellence,’ with excellence taken here to be a vapid concept devoid of referential value but indicative of the mindset of the corporation. For Readings, the university of excellence has lost track of ‘modernity’s encounter with culture.’ Others have described this shift in terms of universities increasingly embracing an ethos of entrepreneurialism, that the term ‘corporate university,’ as employed by Aronowitz (2001), refers to a university that has adopted the ‘framework and ideology of the large corporation’ and which has prioritized the ‘application of accounting principles to academic employment and planning.’ Distinct from a university run by a corporation, the corporate university is one that is run as a corporation.


In light of this brief outline of the shift from the national to the corporate university, what remains is a consideration of what it now means to be a university student or to work in higher education as a teacher, researcher or administrator. What are we doing in the roles we are playing? What are our expectations and those of students, families and other concerned parties? Considering our personal limitations as well as the unfolding situation, what options are there to effect an active and constructive role in this situation? Shall we envision a utopian system of higher education and work towards that? Or do we want to preserve things the way they were in the past, or perhaps protect the structure while changing the content and curricula? In his discussion of ‘education in spite of postmodernity’, Zygmunt Bauman (2001) has noted that while in the modernizing countries universities ‘may still play the traditional role of factories supplying a heretofore missing educated elite, universities in the West will need to rethink their role in a world that has no use for their traditional services, sets new rules for the game of prestige and influence, and views with growing suspicion the values they stood for.’ Bauman also observed that universities have become slow to respond to the unpredictable and hyper-changing worlds of ‘liquid modernity.’ For instance, by the time graduates finish a degree the knowledge they absorb may already be obsolete. Meanwhile, he laments, after the ‘scientifically assisted horrors’ of the twentieth century our faith in the humanizing potential of the modern Western sciences ‘seems laughably, perhaps even criminally, naïve.’ While many nineteenth and twentieth century traditions used to be coveted assets for creating meaning in modern research universities, they are quickly becoming liabilities in a more fluid and tentative world. Bauman suggests that universities can develop responses to this emerging global disorder and perhaps maintain their sense of meaning and purpose by developing a diversity of opinions, methodologies and curricula as necessary survival features. However, he does not address what kind of institutional structures might be required to bring this about.


Recent economic trends in higher education, in which governments have retracted and reduced funding for higher education, have posed challenges for academics. In particular, as corporate universities adopt a ‘student as customer’ approach to solving financial problems, class sizes and teaching loads are expanding. This has given rise to various strategies employed by university professors tasked with teaching these courses. We can illustrate these strategies through a brief tale of two teachers. Teacher one creates artificial scarcity by intimidating students to reduce class size and then guiding the remaining small and elite body toward graduate programs in the Global North, reveling in the ability to gain access for a limited number of students in these elite institutions while at the same time artificially maintaining small class sizes at the expense of his colleagues who end up taking up the slack. This teacher justifies this strategy through recourse to the quality argument. Unlike this elitist colleague, our second teacher accepts the duty to teach hundreds of students in a single lecture, bowing to the quantity demands of the corporate university, but gives them an easy ride by using exams that everybody, regardless of the course content, can easily pass, providing questions in advance, practicing social promotion, and creating a new social contract based on mutual agreement to not make waves or require or achieve much. Despite teaching being one of the main tasks of a university professor today, owing to the increased demand noted above, each position provides relief from teaching one way or another; perhaps we can say that the latter is a populist response and the former an elitist response. As a result, both teachers gain more time for pursuing research interests and chasing grants, with the latter often more highly valued even if the money is often gratuitous and wasteful, especially in the elitist universities. On the point regarding grants, they also have the more insidious feature of inculcating researchers into the money-grubbing culture of the neo-liberal corporation. More importantly, both positions are responses to an emerging trend in higher education that gives pause for reflection on our roles in the academy. Our first teacher laments the ‘low quality’ students and seeks to retrench the elitism of the colonized academy but which ignores or undermines hard won gains by women, people of color and ethnic or religious minorities, or the struggles of the poor and marginalized that have opened the academy doors to a broader cross section of humanity than ever before in history. This could even be seen as a gain or a victory against the exclusivity and elitism of the colonized university, unless the curricular issues noted above mean retrenching the elitist impulse through demands for inculcating one or another national canon.

Of course, there is one possible way to solve much of this problem, which is to close fifty, sixty, or seventy percent of the universities to rebalance the scarcity issue and bolster the elitism. But that would just feed back into the old forms of classical colonization. Rather than that, some may suggest going in the other direction by opening up the academy completely to everybody, which would solve the quantity problem at the expense of the quality issue. Or, perhaps rather than dichotomizing, there needs to be ongoing dialog between civil society, NGOs, the world of work, families and other institutions and the university, so that the university could become more aligned with those sectors of society. Actually, this is what Clark Kerr (2001) proposed in his idea of the Multiversity in the 1960s, a proposal that was roundly despised by university academics of the day and which remains severely criticized even forty years later. Why? I think it’s because a lot of university academics are still operating in the elitist model. But the valid criticism of Kerr’s proposal for a Multiversity is that what he really meant was corporations, as a sort of advocacy of a proto- or cryptic- corporate university before we recently named it as such. But if we broaden that vision of the university being accountable not just to monied corporations but to civil society, to NGOs, to volunteerism and normal employers, then perhaps we can redeem that initial idea of the Multiversity as responsible to society and overlay that with our idea of  Multiversity, which is really about re-introducing marginalized voices into the academy, thus redressing both the institutional as well as curricular imbalances in higher education today.

Actually, to many players closing the requisite number of universities to redress imbalances might seem like a fast solution to this problem. Many academics more inclined toward research than teaching would be happy to be in a position to only teach future clones of themselves, training the next elite of researchers and managers, as noted in the above tale of two teachers. But this seems unlikely, given the strong public belief that a university education can open doors for economic and political opportunities and provide some chances at upward mobility. Beyond that, universities remain one of the few semi-public spaces dedicated to learning, for better or worse, so to close them down or turn them over to the rich might strike others as immoral. Another option would be to make universities more competitive through ever increasingly difficult placement exams and more stringent entrance requirements, but the resulting downside, given the demand for a university education, is likely to create more walking wounded. Subsidizing universities, as is still done in many parts of the Global South, may seem like an option, but this gets complicated by the ever-present threats of brain drain, with the struggling corporate universities of the Global North enticing the elite of the Global South with their subsidized educations to supplement their dwindling domestic enrollments or to provide workers for their own aging societies to keep social security systems afloat or, more crudely, to treat international students as ‘cash cows.’ In fact, this is becoming a matter of policy in the Global North, as evidenced by recent statements from the US House Republican Technology Working Group on ensuring American access to the best workers: ‘We will examine current education programs to make sure they are operating efficiently. We will also examine current visa and immigration laws to make sure we attract and retain the best and brightest minds from around the world.’ Finally, ‘dwelling in the ruins’ is possible, which was the option advocated by Readings (1997), that we accept changes in the system and learn to make it work on our behalf so as to focus on our research, which is a conditional retrenchment of the elitist model.


Although this is an ongoing story and there are variations on these themes, all appear to be asking the same basic question, ‘What should students learn in universities?’ This question consistently receives attention in the literature on higher education in the Global North (e.g., Goodhall 2009, Cole 2010, Hacker and Dreifus 2011), although there is a tendency to dichotomize the debate along rather rigid academic and vocational lines. A problem with this dichotomy arises, however, when we factor in the question of quality and quantity. With declines in state funding for universities, or with state finances being misspent, higher education has had to grapple with the question of funding. Bracketing off the ultra elite institutions that can survive on endowments and donations, this need for funding has made the corporate discourse appealing to many university managers, who are concerned with survival of their institutions. One seemingly easy, though very probably untenable, solution is to close down a requisite percent of universities according to demographics and  finances, as noted above. More often than not, however, one sees issues of recruitment and retention taking precedence over closure, proceeding from the belief that more ‘customers’ are needed to balance the books, which in turn has led in some cases to a lowering of standards to enroll and retain more students but which has also raised fears about universities ‘declining by degrees.’

University faculty, especially those who see the task of the university as being primarily research, often feel threatened by a management apparatus and culture of auditing that is willing to compromise on standards to attract more ‘lower quality’ students so as to pay the bills. Perhaps a middle way would be to meet the fiscal needs of the corporate university by allowing in more students and then modifying the more or less elite and conservative values of the academic disciplines through developing curricula that are not geared solely toward reproducing the next generation of researchers but which would also take seriously the question of work related skills, not as vocational training in the traditional sense but as equally valuable and with the intention of developing ‘reflective practitioners’ (Kincheloe 1995). With this in mind, I want to examine the discourse of ‘transferrable skills’ by disassociating it from the polarizing debate on the value of academic versus vocational knowledge. In other words, the question I’d like to address here is whether or not there is any value to the skills discourse in and of itself, not only in terms of preparing a reflective labor force, and if there are ways to find a workable compromise between the academic disciplines and transferable skills.

The discourse of transferable skills ironically has some intriguing parallels with ideas put forth by Third World thinkers in the age of national liberation movements. For example, a common item on the lists of transferable skills advocated by corporate executives is ‘problem-posing’ skills, which now accompanies the old notion of ‘problem-solving.’ Freire (1970) long ago advocated problem-posing skills as a necessary step toward developing critical consciousness. Perhaps he would now be spinning in his grave at his observation being bantered about in corporate boardrooms; perhaps the executives mean something different. But beyond problem related skills, the discourse also notes such skills as language proficiency, cybernetic literacy, global awareness, and others thought to be useful within and transferrable throughout the world of work. In the wake of decolonization and nationalist liberation movements, state subsidized or even free higher education served a primary purpose in the national development agenda of providing a locally educated elite for technical and managerial positions. However, with an increasing demand for higher education among a broader spectrum of society being largely unmet by a similar increase in job opportunities for degree holders, a system has developed in many places that rewards the few at the expense of the many. This problem is further exacerbated when increasing numbers of graduates leave their home countries with their subsidized educations to seek employment or other opportunities abroad, calling into question the financial policies based on subsidized education (Kianinejad 2007).

Several ways to address this problem were noted above, such as making entry examinations more stringent, to which we can add requiring graduates to remain in their home countries as a stipulation of receiving their subsidized degrees. As these responses may not reasonably or ethically address the imbalance between supply and demand for higher education, which is at the core of the dilemma particularly within the Global South, one possible route would involve forging a closer link between higher education and the world of work, not by segregating academic and vocational education but by finding creative ways to integrate them. Of course, this would have to involve a considerable amount of dialogue and discussion between universities and civil society and care would need to be taken that corporations and business interests cannot hijack the discussions. In this way, the skills discourse may be relevant in the Global South as well as in the North. The foregoing assumes that we still want to maintain the university as the dominant source of knowledge in the world and the disciplines as the only ways of knowing. But in Multiversity we have been trying to move beyond this status quo, no matter how much peoples’ livelihoods and career trajectories might be invested in the current system. In addition, while the vocational-academic compromise I proposed above might be undesirable for the academy as presently configured, it is highly likely that the emerging corporate-elite nexus of the university will find ways to limit enrollments and access, so in the end we may end up with many more students, or more appropriately, learners outside the academy than inside. So what to do next?

One option is to develop ways to make knowledge and learning experiences available through the internet. Ivan Illich (1971) was quite prescient when he wrote decades ago that the way to ‘deschool’ society was to constitute self-forming learning groups spontaneously by tacking index cards onto bulletin boards and using the classified pages in local newspapers to organize knowledge and learning experiences. He had no idea that the internet would provide exactly those options, only much faster and much more broadly available, but I’m sure he would no doubt have embraced the internet in the spirit of self-learning and the free flow of knowledge without borders or restraints, as this approach puts learning into the hands of communities and learners and takes it out of the hands of elitist institutions and moneygrubbing corporations. This first hit me when I set about to learn digital video and joined a number of online forums where people shared their knowledge, wrote how-to guides, asked questions, exchanged ideas, and all of this for free, without tuition, grades, certificates, or any of the other trappings of institutionalized learning. As I learned I helped others, and I soon came to see that what Illich was proposing was already in place and working in the internet age. In addition to learning groups, the internet also provides ways to exchange and share existing information, such as articles, books, videos and music, on a level that is unprecedented in human history. The internet, in fact, has the potential to be the biggest free flowing library the world has ever seen. Only a few years ago, the digital divide made this seem untenable or a privilege of the rich, but with internet access rapidly reaching ever increasing numbers of people each year, the idea of a global interconnected, open access free flowing library is real and achievable. Building upon my previous work with outlining steps toward Multiversity Media (Progler 2010), I’d like to briefly outline here specific actions that we ought to take in addition to those that I initially proposed in the hope that we can bring about an online virtual Multiversity.

For any of this to work, we need to eschew copyright and all other means of locking up knowledge. Books, journal articles and documentary films are much too expensive for most of us, especially those living in the Global South, and paying such high prices for access to that knowledge only subsidizes the publishing industries of the Global North. Beyond that, due to shipping costs and other limitations of physical transfer, even if one can afford the cover price of a video, book or article, the delivery is often prohibitive. For places that are off the global snail mail grid, the internet is becoming the only way to obtain knowledge that is up until now only available via physical media. We can begin by making any and all of our own works, books, articles and videos easily and readily available as digital files on the internet. More radically, this can be extended to  making the works of others available as well, although I understand that some of us might be intimidated by the draconian copyright laws and choose not to do that. But however we may feel about that, it’s already happening by way of numerous file sharing sites that make books, videos and music easily available. This is achieved by networks of volunteers who scan and digitize works and post them on forums and servers for others to access. Despite the litigiousness of the publishing and entertainment industries to curb file sharing, it is becoming the dominant form of internet activity today. If we may wish to argue that this takes money out of the hands of the artists and writers, an alternative is to find them and donate directly, or those of us who can afford it can selectively purchase materials and transfer them to those who cannot. In fact, this is already becoming a de facto business model for some independent filmmakers and musicians who are cutting out the middle men and making their works available directly to fans and not expecting every copy of their work to be a paid copy. Beyond that, there is a wealth of information that is locked up by copyright but which is not available in the market even if we want to pay for it, because greedy or lazy publishers have decided it’s not worth their effort. There are also immense opportunities for making use of the non-copyrighted or open access works, which we can collect, collate and make freely available to whoever wants to learn. Many regional NGOs, such as PRATEC in Peru, are already making all their documentary films free and open access and even encourage people to share them if they like them. Soon, perhaps copyright and exclusive access might become a minority position when it comes to access and learning, but nevertheless we don’t have to wait for that to happen. States and corporations are fighting a losing battle in trying to police the internet by blocking so-called ‘infringing’ sites and trying to lock down knowledge and information when it has already broken free of the constraints of the old physical systems.

In whatever ways we might define these freely available materials, we can organize them by way of internet forums and discussion boards that learners can visit as I did when I was seeking to learn digital video. This can include, but not be limited to online courses, too, although there’s no need to reproduce the structure of the university curriculum and assessment on the internet. It can remain open and anarchistic, depending on the donated time and energy of those of us who are truly committed to knowledge and learning. Nor must this be promoted as a way to replace our universities. Coupled with the above outlined shift from elite academic knowledge to learning that is connected and relevant to communities, citizens and workers, using the internet can supplement our activities in the university by creating global links and networks beyond it.

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6. Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum Books, 1970.
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12. Kincheloe J. L. Toil and Trouble: Good Work, Smart Workers, and the Integration of Academic and Vocational Education. Peter Lang Press, 1995.
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14. Nussbaum, M. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2010).
15. Progler, J. Curriculum Reform in the Corporate University: From the Disciplines to Transferrable Skills. Social Systems Studies, Vol. 21, September 2010, pp. 95-113.
16. Progler, J. Toward Multiversity Media: Current Projects, Action Points, Technical Specs. Paper presented at the Multiversity Meeting on Resisting Hegemony, Penang Malaysia, 2-6 August 2010.
17. Readings, B. The University in Ruins. Harvard University Press, 1997.

Yusef J. Progler teaches Comparative Cultures and Societies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, where he is also Associate Dean of the College of Asia Pacific Studies and has previously served as academic field leader for a new program in Media, Culture and Society. He recently published Books For Critical Consciousness: Forty Reviews with Citizens International, and currently manages TV Multiversity for the MultiWorld Network (http://tvmultiversity.blogspot.com). Progler has also worked in the United Arab Emirates at a national women’s university, where he served as campus chair for International Studies and helped implement the World Humanities and Global Studies courses for the university’s undergraduate general education program. Prior to leaving the US in 2000, he worked in secondary social studies teacher education and managed internships at Brooklyn College in the City University of New York. He is currently archiving some of his writings at http://progler.blogspot.com and can be reached at jprogler@gmail.com.

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