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Imagined universities and blank spaces for dreams

Eileen Pollard and Stephanie Aldred ask if "sticky campus" directives are based on collective conceptions of campus communities that no longer exist?
This article is more than 1 year old

Eileen Pollard is Senior Lecturer in Academic Development at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Stephanie Aldred is Senior Lecturer in Educational Development at Manchester Metropolitan University.

University tactics for keeping students stuck range from threats, surveillance, and persuasion, to outright bribery because (as we explain to both them and ourselves) students who come to class and interact with us and their peers get higher marks.

Reasons for poor attendance are probably many and varied, but we can’t help taking it personally. Full classrooms are much better for staff and student morale. They help maintain the collective dream of intellectual possibility.

After the hasty pivot to online learning and teaching in March 2020, many argued that virtual sessions were a poor substitute for the real thing, and the return to a fully in-person campus experience was a just cause for celebration for groups of staff and students alike. However, after an initial honeymoon period, we saw a definite decrease in attendance numbers.

Had students learnt that asynchronous learning to suit their timetables (and busy lives) was more convenient? Or that some face-to-face sessions were not that satisfying after all? Or that you could save on the journey into town and still learn new concepts? Or were the students coming into campus, just not into the classroom? Or maybe the conception of campus is actually an imaginative one.


In 1983, Benedict Anderson wrote of the power of imagined communities, offering a new account of nationalism; identity with one’s nation involving dreams and stories rather than empirically present objects. More recently, Yuval Noah Harari reminds us that imagination is the essential characteristic of Homo Sapiens.

an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.

The knowledge that the imaginary cannot be seen should not stop us from realising that it is very real, accurate, and can have authentic effects.

We can examine the imagined higher education dream through our proliferating storytelling about it. This is in the polished images in marketing material for universities that look identical, clichéd, and almost stereotyped. In these we see small groups gathered on fair-weather lawns, individuals communing with books in a library stack, and (of course) the classic lecture theatre shot of engaged faces. We select pictures like these to promote our practices, and some of us have even modelled in them. The dominant themes are youth, health, attractiveness, social connection, and happiness.

But what about the university as imagined by staff? It might include some distant memories, reliable or otherwise, of excitedly setting out alone into a world of new relationships, novelty, and stimulation. These are surely edited; the moments of disillusionment, boredom, sadness or loneliness are simply forgotten. Otherwise, we would not have stuck around in academia.

And maybe the pandemic has simply re-catalysed mythologies that were always there. That at university, lecturers wear tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, stroll across quadrangles in black gowns, smoking pipes. That students transversely wear multi-coloured Doc Martens and expressive hairstyles and have piercings and go on protests, live in all-night-party house shares and on white buttered toast and, having done very little work or never having left the library, are ultimately approached in the third year and asked to become a spy.

Blank spaces

In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and the buzz and press of freshers’ week, we need to remember that, like any good spark for the imagination, universities provide a space – just a space – a blank, a void for all of us, staff and students alike, to pour in our desires, fears, beliefs and dreams in the hope of seeing some or all of them reflected. Rather like the perennially lost community of yore, we thought we would return to all this fulsome wonder after the pandemic.

But the university, chameleon-like as ever, had brought all its possible to the online space. Being the opening to several possible futures, a choose-your-own-ending of sorts, the university will always be this elusive seeming dreamcatcher, whatever the medium, simply because the people at the university (who are The University) bring all this energy with them, wherever it goes.

If we want students to stick, perhaps we should think (and talk) more about those dreams. For some of us, a campus is a solid bricks-and-mortar place featuring impressive building work. For others, it’s a glorified resource centre with a great kit. For most, perhaps, it’s a unique social centre containing potential lifelong friends or partners. More abstractly, it might be a realm of endless intellectual motivation.

Whatever our vision, by stubbornly aiming for a physical sticky campus, we might be on a sticky wicket, trying to cast students in a single story of the university.

5 responses to “Imagined universities and blank spaces for dreams

  1. I agree with a lot of this. As a student in the mid 1980s, I found the socialising aspect so played up in prospectuses very difficult to deal with. I loved what I studied, but never made real friends throughout my time as an undergraduate. If the technology had been available, I would quite happily have done everything online, and skipped tutorials altogether. I saw some of my students reacting in similar ways to online teaching during the pandemic (they maintained a degree of autonomy, perhaps). Having said that, most were eager to return to ‘normal’. I had hoped that we had learned about the pedagogical problems with large-scale lectures, but I fear that that lesson, while learned, was soon forgotten.

    1. Even as someone who, personally, much preferred (and prefers) the on-campus experience, I do think it’s a shame we haven’t maintained both delivery modes.

      Not only because of the fact that, as you’ve touched on, students are diverse (and hence some of them may, unlike me, prefer online teaching to in-person teaching), but because there are students who, for various reasons, can only fit online study into their schedules: students who are carers, who are unable to move away from home, who fall through the funding cracks and need to work full-time, and I’m sure many others. And any of these things can crop up when you’re halfway through your degree, so the online alternatives weren’t just great for widening access in the first place, but also for student retention.

      The fact that it’s just all been done away with completely – at least in most instances – is downright foolish.

  2. Any imagined HE campus scenario needs to be situated within the contemporary macro policy context For example, In his recent Burton Clark lecture, Peter Scott (2022) presents two macro sagas of the contemporary English HE environment. The first is one characterised by marketisation, a regulatory state and a neo-liberal economy within which economic arguments dominate our thinking about the nature and
    purpose of HE (Ashwin, 2020: 9) in conjunction with an Office for Students (OfS) acting as a ‘dirigiste regulator… for openly political and ideological purposes’ (Scott, 2021: 164). In an alternative saga, Scott imagines a situation where HE is not viewed theoretically nor in policy and practice terms with an ‘emphasis on political economy, and on transactional markets’ (Scott, 2022: 19). Here, the current market
    primacy of a lecturer-student transactional relationship is re-purposed towards a a HE scenario of greater equity of student access, stronger community empowerment and a ‘more human form of political economy’ (Scott, 2022: 25). This transition will take shape as ‘more distributed, and reflexive forms of
    accountability’ involving ‘regional, civic, and local communities, local government, social movements’ where ‘universities can become more active agents’ (Scott, 2022: 23) aimed at ‘putting the education back into HE and establishing stronger links links between HE and democracy’ (Scott, 2022: 24). Maybe we need to advocate the imagined HE student and staff campus as a collective democratic space – what Habermas refers to as an ‘ideal speech situation’ in conjunction with a more human form of interaction rather than a market transaction?

  3. Thank you for an extremely thought provoking piece. I really enjoyed reading it. I did wonder when these sort of questions would begin to be asked. I believe at my institution, students overwhelmingly ‘voted’ for a return to campus (forgive my lack of source or data to support this), yet they aren’t displaying that in their attendance. So there’s clearly a disconnect, which raises important questions. Did only a certain demographic ‘vote’? Are we not offering what the students meant by a ‘return to campus’? Are outside forces such as the economic changes keeping them away? I suspect it may be a combination of multiple reasons, but I do wonder if we’ll ever see a return to campus in the numbers we experienced pre-pandemic. I for one hope so, for as an early career academic I do miss full classrooms with abundant student engagement!

  4. Great food for thought. Marginalised/minoritised students are always going to not have ‘perfect attendance’ and/or reach other normative measures of ‘being a good student’, as they will need to balance HE with paid work, look after others and so on. Imagination and imagined spaces are powerful, particularly in times of crises (not least our current moment of perma- and omni-crises). Of the many striking re-imaginations during the pandemic include the Post pandemic University If we want students (and staff!) to stick, perhaps we should think, and talk more about those dreams, and make them happen.

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