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February 10, 2011 / heather67

Learning from Radical Education in Latin America, 11/2/11

I attended the first workshop in the series Re-imagining the University, which was held yesterday, and a few things struck me.  One was that there was a really good, but unusual, mix of undergrads, postgrads, researchers, staff and visitors, which rarely gets reproduced anywhere else in the institution, outside of those formalised committees which can often inhibit the very discussion they are intended (apparently) to promote.  And another was that there are a whole number of ways in which we might be able to start rethinking what a University might look like, feel like, and collectively act, some of which are more radical than others.

Heike Schaumberg of Manchester spoke first on the University as a collective actor in Argentina.  Heike represented higher education as a site where the increasing neoliberalisation and marketisation of Argentinian society was challenged, due largely to its internal democratic practices, in which senior positions are subject to election.   While this is light years away from UK practice, it made me ask myself the question whether there is anything in the University’s internal procedures which can be questioned, or rescued, or at least strategically used, to pursue more effective represention of the interests of students and staff.  Can we push and prod and agitate for increased internal democratisation, even if this means rejecting existing bodies which claim to represent us – such as the Student Union?  Do we just need to find a way, initially, to speak to the failures of our internal systems, to put them under scrutiny, as a precursor to reinventing them?

Tristan McCowan of the Institute of Education then spoke of an alternative approach in Brazil – the creation of four new state universities, designed to work in close integration with different forms of community, and to address the inherent inequities of the rest of the higher education system, in which students who have been able to have their education bought for them, vie for places at both public universtities, or buy their way into private ones.  Tristan described this deeply exclusive system as a crystal ball for the current changes to UK higher education.  Like many state-led developments of the Lula era in Brazil, this is a compromise.  It leaves the existing elite instutions largely untouched, but attempts to supplement them with a new form of institution, meeting the needs of those with no hope of breaking into the elite institutions.   But it is, at least, a political commitment.  While the idea of developing new institutions is exciting, I find it hard to see the Cameron government directing public resources into developing Universities for the poor.  However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use the idea to reimagine what an alternative form of institution might look like, and to engage with any opportunity that arises to build that – looking for the gaps, the places where the current system clearly fails to provide, and building initiatives there, close to Cameron’s favourite idea of “community”.

The final speaker was a Nottingham colleague, Jennifer Martinez, who has been researching with The Comites de Tierra Urbana in Venezuela, particularly their use of popular education methods to reimagine their urban environments in new ways which meet their collective needs and aspirations.  State-led developments in Venezuela have focussed on the opening of specialist Universities in the poor barrios, which provide technical and specialist training in particular vocations and professions.  However, Jen’s research has looked more specifically at how educational methods outside of formal structures, owned entirely by its participants, can help us to rethink our worlds.  She spoke about a process of five steps:

1) Sharing our experiences of the world, our problems and triumphs, and writing them up collectively.

2) Looking at all of those stories together and analysing the themes we share, the blocks and frustrations, the problematic or helpful relationships.

3) Debating the shared themes, producing an analysis which is also written up collectively.

4) Identifying through consensus what the key shared issues are, and what we still experience differently (and may need to discuss further) and producing a synthesis.

5) Evaluating the process itself.

The purpose of this process is to examine, analyse and transform practice, lived experience.  It allows participants to understand how individual experiences are connected, and how they reflect existing power relationships.  And it allows us to decide, collectively, where we want to go together.

The discussion which followed began to highlight the extent to which we have to be prepared to constructively and imaginatively disrupt existing University practice, if we want to resist the increasing commodification of learning:

We have to be prepared to challenge existing relationships within Universities, in a way which insists that every experience is valid, including those of current students who are disappointed with existing hierarchical relationships with management and staff, and with lack of time and opportunity for collective learning to take place.

We have to be prepared to reject the dominance of individual knowledge production, which is at the base of most current academic practice, and which divides staff and students, and staff from each other, in a constant effort to compete to produce and publish, almost regardless of quality.  It means exploring opportunities to work together collectively, and to challenge the idea that working together represents a cost to the wholly marketised University.

We have to be prepared to rethink both the way we organise time, or time is organised for us, and space.  This was one of the most productive parts of the discussion, for me, the idea that we have to be prepared to reject some of the tyrannies of organised time, and wrestle back both space and time for some collective exploration of learning and experience.  Instead of constantly passing through the campus on arterial roads, and shooting out the other side, there needs to be a place where members of the University can gather without being under pressure to buy food and drink, or be out by the next timetabled slot.

We have lost some of these spaces of engagement.  Genuinely student-owned spaces, or places in the community where outreach work is undertaken in a genuinely collaborative way.  But at the end of this workshop, I think I had a clearer idea of how a recreation of these spaces might come about – somewhere where members of a University can engage horizontally to rebuild a more lasting collective commitment to each other, and to producing new knowledge which has the potential to lead to new practices, and the energy to maintain the challenge.

I realise that these are just my individualistic thoughts, which is something of a contradiction.  I didn’t have time (ironically) to go for the collective drink afterwards.  But I’d be interested to know what came out of it for everyone else.

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