Can universities retain their edge as knowledge production is democratised?
Universities have always been in the business of reproducing the structures of knowledge and power in society. However, as these structures have become more democratised, universities are set to become victims of their own success. In other words, as everyone acquires academic training, a competitive advantage increasingly accrues to those who use traditionally non-academic means of producing knowledge that nevertheless manage to reach large numbers of people. I am specifically alluding to film production and more advanced interactive forms of computer programming. Sites like the Reinvention Centre are ideally poised to make the case that these skills are as integral to the curriculum as ordinary literacy and numeracy. However, the ultimate challenge facing universities as they broaden their skills base in this fashion is whether they can retain control over intellectual standards, since most of the knowledge produced in these new media are happening outside academic settings, often in a self-organizing fashion. If universities are to do more than merely follow market trends, the question of standards will have to loom large. However, it also provides a unique opportunity for academics and students to collaborate in the production of what would be ‘second-order’ knowledge.
Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. He is most closely associated with the interdisciplinary research programme of ‘social epistemology’, which is the title of a journal he founded in 1987 and the first of his fifteen books. His recent books include The Intellectual: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (Icon, 2005) and The Knowledge Book: Concepts in Philosophy, Science and Culture (Acumen, 2007). He keynoted the 2006 annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education.