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The Porous University Symposium: The University Beyond Its Walls by Frank Rennie

The Porous University symposium was brought together in the University of the Highlands and Islands in May 2017.  The symposium coalesced around a series of conversations and reflections on the nature of openness within Higher Education. 

Prof Frank Rennie
Prof Frank Rennie

The discussion began with the awareness that openness is increasingly seen as a technical question, the solution of which lies in employing in low costs associated with digital technologies with open licenses to open up academic content to new groups of learners.

Critical voices grappled with this partial reading of openness and critiqued the degree to which this is really open or permeable.  Part of the critique drew upon older traditions of the meaning of ‘open’ and in turn questioned the freedoms that free content affords for those who are already distanced from formal places of education.

Here is Frank Rennie’s contribution to the symposium.  He is Professor of Sustainable Rural Development, Assistant Principal (Research, Enterprise, and Development) at the University of the Highlands and Islands.  You can read some of his work by following this link



The Provocation Transcript

Hi, I’m sorry that I cant be with you today but the concept of what we are currently calling ‘the porous university’ is very close to my heart. I’ve decided to record this ‘provocation’ on my iPhone in advance in the hope of stimulating some interesting discussion on specific issues.

I look forward to catching up when I come back. To me, the concept of the porous university is about making the flow of knowledge between the university and the wider community more transparent and more valued – in both directions.

That is not to say that there is not already a significant amount of interchange between the Academy and the rest of society – this includes much of what we term ‘knowledge transfer’ or ‘knowledge exchange’ depending on how participatory you consider these activities to be.

But increasingly this appears to be an overly narrow view of what is considered to be useful to society at large. To be clear, I am not saying that academics should not seek to publish our research in specialised but obscure journals, or even that we should abandon the element of elitism when discussing highly specialised but important topics.

Nor am I saying that we should ignore the UK-wide Research Excellence Framework although there is much to be criticised about the REF, but that is a topic for another day. I am not even saying that there is not fantastic work in many subject areas where university research is either stimulated by the needs of industry and society or where it feeds back into commerce and society with new applications and policies.

What I am saying is that these activities should not be valued to the exclusion of the much much wider fields of education and research which are of interest, relevance and importance to the community of the nation but are currently not apparently considered by some to be priority outputs for the university sector.

It is thought provoking to consider that when we look at the list of what are regarded as the top 200 best universities in the world and then look at the number of universities in this list against the population of each country that Scotland comes third in the global list for the number of top universities per capita of population.

This perhaps should come as no surprise for if you know your history you might remember that Scotland has a very long tradition of valuing education for its own sake. It was this conviction which led to the establishment of ‘the parish school’ – elementary schools which were created in almost every local community throughout the country, and this achieved some hundred-odd years before some of our neighbouring nations.

It was also this conviction of the value of education as a ‘public good’ which drove the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. The Scottish Enlightenment was the triumph of rational thought over the dictates of authority which could not be justified by reason – and this in turn supported and encouraged the spread of the enlightenment throughout Europe and beyond.

A key distinguishing feature of the Scottish Enlightenment was the belief that rational humanity could effect improvements to society and nature by the application of reason alone. This was embraced by the universities but not restricted to them.

They were numerous learned societies and ‘town and gown’ meetings which were frequented not only by academics but by learned people from all walks of society. Businessmen considered it a public duty to give back to universities where they had been educated and which would educate their children, so libraries, departments, and personal chairs were bequeathed from the profits of industry.

Without wishing to conjure up a mythical ‘Golden Age of knowledge exchange’ it seems to me that universities have lost much of this awareness of their relevance to the wider society of the nation. They have become less ‘porous’ and more inward looking in their drive to recognize excellence in the communication of education according to rather restricted, narrow criteria.

Let me give you some examples. We have academics who dissect and scrutinise every linguistic twist in the Gaelic language while getting increasingly distant from – even disdainful of – the actual living connection with the deep cultural context and the needs and every day conversations of the slowly depleting communities of native Gaels.

We have economists who apparently recognise only the corporate values of so-called ‘new economics’ while 99% of private enterprises in Scotland are SME’s (Small and medium-sized enterprises ) supporting 1.2 million jobs; that is 54% of jobs in the private sector. The development agencies driven by this ‘new economics’ get further and further away from the needs and support structures which these SME’s are seeking to make them more successful and more sustainable.

We have a situation in which a reputed 95% of global scientists support the evidence for the man-made contribution to climate-change, yet a media industry which seeks to convey “balanced” news reports by giving equal coverage to both sides of the argument. As a scientist I welcome informed debate in contested areas of knowledge, but a 95 to 5 percent split is by no means a balanced position of equal merit.

Is it any wonder that a great mass of global citizens are confused about which trail of ‘evidence’ to believe ? Is it any wonder that ‘fake news’ stories appear to spread rapidly and with apparently equal currency to the contradictory evidence of the reality ? When accomplished experts are apparently unable to communicate their expertise to non-specialists and are consequently devalued, mistrusted, and marginalised from decision-making, are we not seeing a growing divide between the hegemony of knowledge and the political application of non-rational behaviour in society ?

Are we entering a new age of Unreason ? To some extent, the eighteenth century role of universities in disseminating knowledge to the populace, has been replaced by television media and increasingly by web-based resources over the internet.

The porosity of digital media which enables individual citizens to edit Wikipedia, to add their photographs and their video clips to online repositories, and to share their views through blogs, podcasts, and live Skype links to the newsrooms of the world; all this has eclipsed the porosity of the knowledge factories that we call ‘universities’.

I am in no doubt that this democratisation of knowledge is an indication of the progress of the human race, but this comes with a requirement and a responsibility to learn the literacy of these new opportunities for the porous exchange of knowledge. In the same way that the Reformation wrested the book out of the hands of the elite and enabled each individual to place their own interpretations and values on what they were able to read for themselves so the Revolution of the social internet has begun to bypass the university as the primary purveyor of knowledge to the masses.

I would argue that it is time for the universities to re-evaluate their position and their potential contribution to the whole of society not just the students who attend the universities to attain specific degrees.

Open access education, open publications, and open educational practices are globally widespread but as yet fairly small contributions to knowledge dissemination in comparison with the administrative firewalls which are sealing off the effective porosity of our universities.

It is time to re-open the dialogue with communities and encourage the improved porosity of the university to benefit the whole of global society.


For more information on the symposium:

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