Where have all the conflicts gone?

by Ronald Barnett

Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at University College London, and is the President of PaTHES.  He has written or edited well over 30 books on the philosophy of higher education, is the inaugural recipient of the EAIR Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Higher Education Research, Policy and Practice’ and has been an invited keynote speaker in 40 countries.

In the philosophy of higher education, where have all the conflicts gone?  Or, more accurately, where are the conflicts?  The mediaeval universities had their disputations with individuals pitted against each other.  Is the lack of any such disputatiousness a sign of a field’s intellectual maturity or its immaturity?  By and large, the scientists work within theoretical frameworks over which there is tacit acceptance and it is in the social sciences and humanities where warring parties line up against each other.  But even there, overt dispute seems to be fading.  Perhaps, after all, this lack of explicit intellectual conflict is a feature of our age. 

How might, then, the lack of large issues over which there is manifestly a marked difference of perspective or view be interpreted, at least within the philosophy of higher education?  (I treat the phrase ‘the philosophy of higher education’ in the most generous way to include large theoretical and speculative thinking as well as reflective thought about both institutional matters and educational processes.) 

One way of interpreting the lack of overt dispute is to see it as a reflection of intellectual decorum.  The philosophy of higher education is just emerging as a field of study and those at work within it are reluctant to give offence and so are cautious in their exchanges.   Another possibility is that there are no exchanges!  Being a young field, and without any definite frame around which a critical mass of scholarship is forming, intellectual efforts are as ships that pass in the night.  They simply go their own way with perhaps a morse code  signal by way of acknowledgement. 

A yet further possibility connects with the wider consideration already intimated that this is the way the intellectual world is tending to be: overt dispute is becoming thinner on the ground.  And this, if it be the case, is entirely explicable.   With higher education increasingly subject to audit of various kinds (institutional, national, disciplinary), one needs friends and needless dispute is to be avoided.  One daren’t give offence for, in a few years’ time if not now, one just might need the support of a particular reviewer.  And it’s a global world, where offence can too easily be imparted to those one doesn’t know, and who may yet have influence on one’s intellectual trajectory.

Is that it, then?  That those beavering away in the field just go their own way?  Doubtless, as is the way these days, their reference lists – at the end of their papers or book chapters – will continue to grow, and there will be due deference paid to others in the community.  But there will be little in the way of staking out the ground of a particular potential field of conflict, and still less the taking up of cudgels in that arena.  Is such quiescence not a sign of a lack of liveliness, of due fervour, and a will seriously to engage with difficult issues?  Would one not expect that there would be some quite large differences of view, or approach or perspective, that could be played out in the texts that emerge in the field?  Is it not a problem that there seems to be very little – or even nothing at all – by way of difference?

It might be felt that, in the philosophy of higher education, there are simply no big issues over which to get steamed up. The field, even as it takes shape, is not of that ilk.  I disagree.  There are many matters over which one might expect to see a quite legitimate large variance of view.  Here are some:

  • The significance of ‘the idea of the university’.  There is a literature specifically on the idea of the university stretching back over two hundred years.  Does that literature have value in speaking to contemporary issues of higher education?  Some will say ‘most definitely’ and others may be of the view that that is a matter only for those devoted to the faith (whatever that be).
  • The relationship between research and teaching.  As is well known, John Henry Newman had no truck with research (which was both part of the Germanic idea of the university and was beginning to get going in universities in the mid-nineteenth century).  This is now a fundamental issue in the twenty-first century.  Does the idea of a ‘teaching university’ make sense?  Do all university teachers have a responsibility to conduct research?  There are liable to be stark conceptual differences of view on the matter.
  • The very meaning of ‘higher education’: to what extent does the term hold conceptual water?  Is there anything that is ‘higher’ that might be advocated and defended?  Or has the term simply become a bureaucratic term, depicting part of the total educational effort?   The differences here, I wager, will be more nuanced but nevertheless still stark.  There will be those who will aver that the term denotes an especially high and even metaphysical level of human development and there will those who will be unmoved by the matter, or even seeing in it the smidgen of a residual elitism.
  • Negotiation or resistance:  Many will see the large ideas of the day – marketisation, neoliberalism, entrepreneurship, equity, social justice, access – as ideologies to be critically examined and even resisted – while others will wish to seek ways of accommodating to them.  (Depending on one’s own stance, particular ideologies will be picked out for attention, in one direction or another.) 
  • Academic freedom:  The topic stirs into new life from time to time.  Just now, there is a particular issue in the public domain, that of the no-platforming of speakers on campus and of the language that academics may or may not use in classroom settings.  Just what are the conditions and limits of ‘free speech’ to be?  What rights should (a) academics and (b) those on university premises enjoy?  Again, large differences of view might be advanced in the philosophy of higher education, with some urging a more libertarian standpoint and others pleading for definite boundaries, so as – for example – to afford a measure of ‘safe spaces’ on campus.
  • Structure and agency: This matter has prompted large debates, even of some angst, for nearly a century in social science and social theory but where are the ripples of those debates to be seen in the philosophy of higher education?  For what it is worth, my sense is of a near-unanimity along these lines: huge structures are bearing in and oppressively so In and onto higher education and it is up to individuals, either by themselves or in their local (institutional or disciplinary) groupings, valiantly to do what they can to ‘resist’ the powers that be, and to defend and advance – and to ‘construct’ – their agency.  That there might be quite different perspectives seems rarely to be entertained.

There is, by the way, a new kid on the block that does suggest the makings of an argumentative dispute.  The recent ‘manifesto for a post-critical philosophy’ stakes its claims to being ‘by no means an anti-critical position’, but rather looks to ‘affirm what we do in the present’ and to enable ‘practice to happen anew’ (Hodgson, Vlieghe, and Zamojski, 2017).  This ‘entails no longer a critical relation’.   But is it possible to establish good ground on which either to affirm the present or for new practices to happen without a critical eye on matters?  Is there not a positive space and a place for critique? Is it not that the critical relation has to be surpassed or left behind but rather reclaimed in a new relation?  At least here, surely, are all sorts of matter on which to build a debate, if not a thorough-going dispute, as to the place of the critical moment within the philosophy of higher education.

If it is to be a vibrant field of study, and if it is seriously to confront the issues of the day, and if it is to develop its own measure of criticality, the philosophy of higher education should not be shy of identifying matters on which there can be large difference of view.  So far, at any rate, the lists remain forlornly empty of contestants.  Perhaps, at least, this piece may provoke its own assailants.


Hodgson, Vlieghe, and Zamojski (2017) Manifesto for a Post-Critical Philosophy.  Open access at: https://punctumbooks.com/titles/manifesto-for-a-post-critical-pedagogy.