The idea of a democratic university

Soundings - ISSN 1362-6620
Volume 2023 Number 84 & 85

The idea of a democratic university
Michael Rustin pages 129-147
DOI: 10.3898/SOUN.84-85.08.2023


This article sets the current crisis of universities in the UK in its recent historical, post-1960s context. It argues that an expansionary and initially broadly progressive phase of development from the 1960s onwards, lasting for twenty-five or so years, has come in the recent neoliberal decades to be seen as a threat to the dominant social order, in the context of a broader resistance to the egalitarian and democratic trends of post-war British society. Since the 1980s this now large sector of social and cultural production and reproduction has been subject to a purposeful restructuring, to render it consistent with the norms of a society dominated by capital. This restructuring can be broadly understood as taking place within a neoliberal framework of assumptions. Unless this wider situation, and the changes which have led to them, is understood, in historically and theoretically coherent terms, resistance to what is happening is unlikely to succeed. The article first discusses the phase of university expansion, the forces which brought it about, and the social and cultural changes and opportunities to which it gave rise. It then discusses the counter-reaction, and the attempts to remodel the practices and institutions of higher education that constitute its active elements. Finally it explores what might be involved in resetting this path of development in a more positive direction, and considers the many theoretical and political difficulties involved in imagining this and making it possible. Here it argues the need for a dismantling of the graduate meritocracy over society, and for bringing into being an educated democracy. It is crucial to create the conditions for a broad debate on the place and function of universities in our society, in which these larger issues of direction and purpose can be debated. The author notes, however, that only in a society that becomes less grossly unequal than ours is it possible to imagine education being designed or indeed allowed to serve these generally democratic and enabling purposes. 

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To cite this article
Michael Rustin (2023) The idea of a democratic university, Soundings, 2023(84 & 85 ), 129-147.

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