If you like paradox and tension then Critical University Studies (CUS) might be your sort of field.
At its best, it works at the intersection of scholarship, policy and governance to build a more reflective pragmatism around what Universities do, and what they could do. Part research, part vision-casting, the field has ambitions to thoroughly understand and advance the infrastructures, concepts, and practices that make the idea of 'university’ both ubiquitous and multitudinous. The field is truly interdisciplinary – arts, social sciences, humanities; and trans-sector – administration, leadership, policy. And it is motivated, in part, by a sense of urgency, that something precious is at stake (the knowledge that Universities have always been changing and always, to some degree, in crisis doesn’t so much remove the ‘fork in the road’ quality of things as point to the equally long history of people arguing for the direction they think best as they build the roads.)
The work can, however, be fraught: the field’s necessary capaciousness, whilst invigorating, is hugely challenging, cf above. Its objects are highly regulated and operating in a fast-altering context (the recent establishment in the UK of TEF, the OfS, and UKRI being just one example). Its objects can also regulate and fast-alter one’s own circumstances: if you plan to turn your research gaze towards institutions that significantly shape how that very research happens, and which might also pay your rent, then some self-awareness is required.
There is also the real possibility that CUS is not in fact a field but more a mutual object of enquiry – you care about what goes on in Universities because you teach and write and serve in one; because who is in and who is out matters; because student finance and adjunct labour and metrification and massification matter; because research and its connection to innovation, social harmony, political astuteness and all-round human enabling matter. Because you think that scholars have things to say about how Universities are structured, how they are assessed, and what they aim to do.
Thinking about how Universities (in all their forms) can serve multiple public goods might also end up producing ways of doing things that undo current ways of doing things, or that are significantly uncomfortable, particularly in an era that will likely be dominated by the emergence of a multi-polar global system, the profound effects of climate change, and uncertainty around the future of political instabilities.
And so paradox and tension – essential for good research, slightly less useful for building a career doing it – are inescapably part of CUS. But challenges are also opportunities… Last week the Early Career Researcher Network on Critical University Studies launched at CRASSH, supported by a British Academy Rising Stars Engagement Award, and formed with the intention to develop:
- a clearer sense of the constellation of approaches that constitute University Studies
- methods for countering the challenges of being an early career scholar working in CUS
- ideas for developing the field – publication forms and genre, better mechanisms for collaboration and convergence, capacity for research and policy leadership
So far we are a group of 20 scholars from 10 different UK institutions and 13 different disciplines. Our focus is predicated on the idea that universities are, fundamentally, valuable human systems and as such can be changed. Even with, or because of, the tension and the paradox.