Søren S.E. Bengtsen, Aarhus University, Denmark
Believing in the university
A heightened gap between the university and society is now evident. On the policy level, discourses of excellence, world-classness and value-for-money press upon universities while, on the societal level, there are calls for impact, skills, employability and marketable knowledge. All this is symptomatic of a wide societal, and even worldly, sudden loss of faith in the university. From being an institution associated by society as having valued sets of insights into the world through its highly specialised knowledge systems, the university today is a target of suspicion from the wider world, being separately associated with privilege, elitism, arcaneness, and a lack of trustworthiness. In order to (re-)gain faith in the university, I contend that a principal tack lies in a new focus on knowledge, with implications for a wider idea of the university. Instead of seeing knowledge as a means of separating universities and the wider society, knowledge should be understood as a relational bond and ‘social contract’ (or even ‘pact’) between the institution and society. In this mode, the university does not speak of and about society, but from and for society. Knowledge is part of the lived life of society and becomes a living of that life. Through knowledge and its promulgation, the university is well-placed to widen and to enliven the public sphere in totally new ways. The current strained relation between universities and society is ultimately a matter of faith, and its loss. Having faith in the university and its members and partners means to trust that the university’s pursuit of and interest in knowledge is meaningful, worthwhile, and can and will change the world for the better.
Søren S.E. Bengtsen is Associate Professor at Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media, Aarhus University in Denmark. He is Deputy Director of the research centre ‘Centre for Higher Education Futures’ (CHEF) at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. He is the Chair of the international academic association ‘Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society’ (PaTHES) and was the main organizer of the first Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference titled ‘The Purpose of the Future University’, held at Aarhus University in 2017.
The keynote speech is an expansion of the argument presented at the SRHE Conference 2018 with the title ‘Having Faith in the University’ (co-authored with Ronald Barnett).