Book review: The New Power University by Jonathan Grant

In The New Power University Jonathan Grant calls for universities to reimagine how they achieve their social purpose. Debbie McVitty considers the feasibility of his proposals.

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Much like the “new power” phenomenon it draws on as its analytical lens, the power of The New Power University lies less in the singularity of any of its insights than in their accumulation to build a picture of the fragility of the contemporary Western university in the face of enormous political and social upheaval.

“New power”, as coined and explained by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans in their book New Power, is social power rather than institutional power – power that stems from people’s radically enhanced ability to connect, participate, and organise to challenge established hierarchies and received wisdom in the digital age.

New power is neither innately harmful nor benign – but it is certainly disruptive, with a chaotic energy that can be uncomfortable. It demands rapid communication, and radical transparency. Universities are no strangers to its effects: think about the success of industrial action over USS pensions in the last few years, or students organising around fee refunds and rent rebates during Covid-19.

Old power

For Jonathan Grant, universities – or at least the liberal, Western universities that are the focus of his argument – are archetypically “old power”, with a “largely deserved” reputation for being “elitist out-of-touch institutions that are exploiting students, their parents and broader society through worthless and expensive degrees and irrelevant esoteric research” – a starting point that is about as far from the usual platitudes about world-leading universities transforming lives as it can be.

But, in contrast to what may be intended to be a provocative opening gambit, throughout The New Power University Grant evidences a faith in universities – or at least, the people who make up the institutions – to discover a wider public purpose. New power, while potentially threatening, also offers a lens through which the purpose and practices of universities can be challenged and reimagined.

The urgency of the task is set out in the opening chapter – Grant asserts that we are currently living in “in-between” times, in which the financial crisis of the last decade, the rise of networked technology and the growth of populism are challenging the (neo)liberal geopolitical order, without certainty of what may arise in its place. In such times – as, Grant argues, occurred in 1930s Germany – people and institutions can bend the arc of history one way or another through their willingness to take action, or their inertia.

Can universities be effective historical actors? It rather depends on whether you believe that the encroachment of markets, managerialism and commercial logic into higher education excludes the possibility of selfless public service. Grant takes a moderate position, arguing that universities need to be financially sustainable (which implies a limited concession to market forces) but that commercial values have taken the upper hand to too great an extent, with process, money, and management too often placed above people, values, and leadership.

New power in practice

In the chapters that follow, Grant applies the logic of new power to every aspect of the university: curriculum, research, and community engagement.

Students should not be satisfied but empowered – and developed to live lives of service, rather than consumption. Student engagement should be much more cognisant of Gen Z values and experience in which social conscience mingles uneasily with delayed adulthood and attendant anxiety and comparatively poor mental health.

New models of teaching provision should be allowed to emerge, and the monopoly of universities on awarding credit be removed – so that, for example, teaching could look like groups of academics designing a course and contracting their services to a number of universities.

Research should embrace open innovation, citizen science, and open access publishing, with a much greater and more meaningful role for beneficiaries in the framing of research questions. Academic precarity should be reversed so that senior academics operate on more flexible part-time and short-term contracts, while early career academics have something akin to tenure until they have established their reputation.

Universities should embrace the principle of community organising, with two-way learning and networked entrepreneurship taking the place of “civic” “anchor” institutions with their implied paternalistic overtones and reliance on bricks and mortar in a specific geography. Global partnerships and networks would enable the university to use its assets for good anywhere in the world that its mission led it.

Some of the venerated structures underpinning the modern university – such as the academic/professional divide, or the division of knowledge into disciplines – would begin to dissolve, as universities sought to bridge and combine different forms of expertise.

Governance would fuse research, teaching, and service missions, with much greater diversity and focus on public impact. And universities would be bold about advocating on matters of public concern, rather than confining themselves to commenting on issues that affect their interests.

It’s all very compelling stuff, and great fun to read, especially as Grant writes forcefully, clearly, and sincerely. The argument is made in broad strokes and at pace. For each chapter you could legitimately demand greater nuance and depth. But to do so would miss the point, probably – this is a polemic, intended to spark debate and jolt the sector out of complacency, not anticipate and head off every possible counter point in advance.

Burning platform

The extent to which you find it a helpful contribution to the debate depends very much on how bad you think things are, both in the world, and in the university itself.

Certainly, universities often appear ill-equipped to cope with aspects of contemporary political debate; from Black Lives Matter to Brexit, universities can struggle to respond in a way that is both timely and authentic. And there are known issues in university practices that can lead to concrete harm: outsourcing and casualisation of labour within universities, studentification and contribution to gentrification of local communities, and the carbon impact of international travel.

But it could be argued that problems like these can be addressed with better policies and more effective communications without disrupting the core of universities’ mission – which glosses over the questions Grant wants to ask about the fundamental values that produced these practices in the first place.

The degree of disaffection of contemporary university staff and students is a matter for debate, rather than conclusive evidence. For every example of dysfunction there is a counter-example of positive impact. It can’t be denied that in their current configuration universities make an enormous contribution to the national wellbeing – and have the data to back it up.

And who has ownership of university values anyway? Universities may be hierarchical “old power” institutions but the pyramid has a distributed apex – it is often quite hard to locate exactly where the power lies between governors, the executive team, and the academy. This means that, no matter how much any part of the system believes it to be in need of an overhaul, the incentives and capability for change are limited.

New power does not really address the problem of accountable leadership. It can generate icons – figures of inspiration and influence – but networked governance makes it very hard to hold anybody accountable for how power is operating.

Paradoxically, bringing in new power values to the university may require stronger centralised leadership to act as the first mover – and then systematically redistribute power away from the centre again but in a different configuration. However much we might wish to move away from the mythology of the heroic leader, the personal qualities required to implement this shift would be extraordinary indeed.

One response to “Book review: The New Power University by Jonathan Grant

  1. I cannot imagine just how this will work, considering the amount of indoctrination and advocacy that already occurs in many ‘western’ Universities.

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