The European civilization is currently facing its greatest danger since the Cold War. No, I’m not talking about immigration, but of the phenomenon that is exemplified by the so-called Bologna Process of higher education reform. The Bologna Process is set to “stregthen the competitiveness and attractiveness of the European higher education and to foster student mobility and employability” (to paraphrase the official Bologna Process website) by means of harmonizing the degree structures of European universities. It’s a part of a bigger scheme to commodificate higher education in Europe. In this scheme, students are turned into “customers” of the universities which sell them “qualifications” that can be used to apply for jobs in the private sector (Matteo Pasquinelli has called this model the “IKEA of education”). Parts of the scheme are increases in student fees and stricter bureaucratic control of students.
Another effect of the Bologna Process is what could be called the expertization of the academia. Academics are no longer perceived as intellectuals but as experts in some narrow field of knowledge, and they’re no longer involved in free intellectual discourse but “innovation,” that is to say creation of ideas that can be commercially or socially utilized. The output of academic research is being increasingly privatized by means of patents, partnerships with private companies and the replacement of public funding with private funding. The point of these developments is to subjugate academic activity to the needs of the nation and the market (which are, of course, one and the same). Criticising these institutions is no longer allowed and “useless” faculties, such as philosophy, are being starved to death.
Every expert is basically an engineer, and those who work in the field of social sciences are social engineers. An engineer is someone who builds the dam without questioning, even if it means chasing over a million people from their homes.¹ Similarly, a social engineer never questions the predominant values of the society. For the social engineer, society appears as a gigantic machine. Any conflicts in society are perceived as malfunctions of that machine, to be dealt with using technocratic means. The task of the social engineer is to make the machine work as fluidly as possible, eliminating all conflict and establishing a sort of a Western variation of the Confucian harmonious order.
The work of the social engineer is in stark contrast to the notion of academic freedom upon which the modern European university system is based. Academic freedom was established just so that academics would be able to pursue the truth and criticise the ruling classes without fear of retribution. It’s ironic that the process currently destroying this freedom was named after the city of Bologna, the home of the first university with a charter on academic freedom (the so-called Constitutio Habita).
It looks like the time of the European university as a sanctuary of free intellectual activity is coming to an end. However, I think we can still salvage its tradition. Here I would like to return to the concept of the public domain I recently wrote about. The public domain lies, by definition, outside any formal institutions, thus providing a space where ideas can be exchanged freely. Such exchange is the basis of intellectual freedom. The public domain is free of utilitarian control thus allowing us to perceive the inherent value of ideas and the free pursuit of knowledge.
David J. Staley has described a model for a “Wiki-ized University” which consists of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students, non-restricted entry, open access to all knowledge and a non-fixed curriculum with no official tenures, diplomas or administration. Such a model could provide a new forum of intellectual activity that is not only unfettered by the state apparatus and the market, but that also goes beyond the faculty limits of the academic tradition.
¹ I don’t mean to put down actual engineers here, what I’m talking about is an archetype.