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Environment trumps content: university in the knowledge society

How is the value of university changing? Carola Boehm on higher education in the twenty-first century knowledge society
This article is more than 4 years old

Carola Boehm is Professor of Arts and Higher Education at Staffordshire University.

During ten years of austerity and three years of Brexit-blindness, the UK government seems to be struggling to understand the role and value of universities for our future knowledge economies.

Current overarching policy and regulatory frameworks seem to afford a risk-minimising conformity rather than USP-resulting experimentation, running contrary to various explicitly formulated policy aims, and thus simply demonstrating some helpless flailing as part of the adding to the layer-cake of various failed policy interventions.

At the heart of the issue is the simple and basic question of how we can make our universities more impactful while not breaking the bank. This would be a relatively benign way of representing a political and ministerial mindset in which our universities have become increasingly the scapegoat of choice.

Over the last three years, various government officials seemed to have washed their hands of the responsibility for the mess in which our nation finds itself, comprehensively outlined in George Monbiot’s journalistic explorations of class, inequality, environment, growth obsessions, and financial crises or Roger Brown’s recent academic analysis, The Inequality Crisis.

Perhaps exactly because universities are one of the few sufficiently “public” institutions left that cover the whole country, they have increasingly been the focus of ministers wanting to turn the last levers to make all of our nation’s miseries disappear. The result is that it is easier for universities to take their eyes off the ball and play it safe at a time when we need to be innovating in the ways we engage with society and the economy.

Evolution not revolution

There is a general acknowledgement in the sector that there is a shift needed in how our higher education institutions facilitate their learning communities. To understand this trajectory of the last two to three decades, I have started to use a conceptualisation of an evolutionary journey from university 1.0 to university 3.0.

In this conceptualisation, university 1.0 represents more predominantly those periods and institutional cultures associated with an inherent perception of “knowledge ownership” including, for instance, modern aspects of institutionally-owned intellectual property and copyright.

This “knowledge patronage” model influences how content is managed, taught, protected and produced. Typical teaching practices include processes that represent a knowledge exchange from those employed within the institution to those who don’t, such as large lectures.


University 2.0 moved into the era of massification of higher education, characterised by expanding and fragmentating knowledge domains and the use of metrics to personalise mass-produced and marketed learner products.

Like a box of assorted chocolates, we were able to personalise through learner analytics to the extent that learners felt they received what they needed, whilst experiencing a mass-produced service. We see emergence of quality assurance products (e.g. validations); standardisation of content (e.g. QAA benchmark statements); and concepts around students as consumers and universities as businesses.

But a key aspect remains – that knowledge is central. We academics were curating the knowledge for our learners as we navigated these fragmented fields of content, the fragmentation of knowledge resulting out of expanding knowledge fields. That is to say that knowledge had become expanded to such an extent, that deep knowledge domains increasingly appeared as unconnected fragments within larger subject areas.

This fragmentation is what Sperber re-conceptualised as “brittleness” and consideration of how to connect these domains took on a new momentum with an increase of scholarly work and practices into interdisciplinarity in higher education. With this fragmentation comes the debate over value: university 2.0 conceptual models have an inherent friction between knowledge depth and knowledge breadth and between the transactional purpose of knowledge/skills versus the basic need of humans to pursue a better understanding of our role in the world. But in university 2.0 there is still the concept of universities being patrons of knowledge, albeit now being the curators of knowledge for transactional utilitarian purposes as well as expanding our understanding of reality.

A new era

However, I would suggest that we in the sector are now entering an era of university 3.0, and this seems to not be well understood by current policy makers. University education is becoming more a process of curation of interfaces between knowledge and society. In other words, the quality of a learning environment is becoming more important than specified and static learning content.

Providers are becoming more permeable and learners and researcher more often co-own, co-produce and co-create. There is a big role here for knowledgeable and expertise-rich actors as lecturers and professors, but their predominant role of interacting with learners moves away from transmitting knowledge (university 1.0), and also away from curating knowledge (university 2.0) to facilitating learners to bring the knowledge that is all around them into the learning process, and managing this complexity in a curated learning environment in which sense-making and knowledge-creation is constantly part of that environment (university 3.0). However, current underpinning quality assurance frameworks comprehensively do not take this into consideration.

I would argue that universities need to have the freedom from content-based regulatory constraints (e.g. QAA subject benchmark statements) and risk-rich, metric-driven performance measures (e.g. TEF) and be allowed to consider how their support for learning and knowledge production processes feed into the design and curation of these interfaces, these learning environments, in which learners are supported by drawing from knowledges that are ever-present and all around us.

In university 3.0 we carefully position various interfaces between different levels of learners, different types of communities and different disciplines. This careful positioning is a process of curating interfaces, with the facilitation of learning being at the heart of this process, rather than the acquisition of specific knowledge content itself.

With a focus on interfaces between the university and external sectors and industries, these environments will need to become more permeable to allow universities to remain a key element in benefiting our knowledge economies in the future.

Permeable partnerships

Partnerships are key for this trajectory and in 2016 I wrote that it might be useful to consider formalised partnership models that allow the barriers of these different spheres to be negotiated more effectively, to allow our institutions to become ever more permeable. For all these aspects, the design of environments as permeable partnership-ecosystems are necessary, and future study practices will increasingly need to adapt to this new learning environment. The importance – and challenges – of partnership-rich learning ecosystems feeding into forward-looking sustainable learning environments foregrounds the need to move away from “content” to “environment”.

There are examples where this has always happened in practice, as in my area of arts and creative practices. But the move from formalised and structured learning objects to formalised structured learning environments has only just begun. Any future TEF will need to consider its implications in order not to stifle innovation at a time where it is vital to support the adoption of new education paradigms.

4 responses to “Environment trumps content: university in the knowledge society

  1. Very thought provoking. I think some universities are still moving to university 2.0 – curators of knowledge. The idea that they should now be moving to university 3.0 – facilitators of knowledge is one I need to think about!

  2. Thanks, Andrea. Yes, and I think there are plenty of 3.0 pockets (big and small) in 2.0 Universities. An additional thought is that the resilience of a healthy higher education sector might also depend to some extent on a diversity of 1.0/2.0/3.0 offers and mash-ups (both sector wide and intra-institutionally), especially as we know the sector to be so complex with levers and desires pulling from all sorts of directions. This of course points towards the need of more flexibility, and less standardisation, regulation, governmental interventions …. (and of course we should not mistake this with creating a market, but rather supporting a diverse HE learning space for a common good, and ideally a public good)

  3. A usefully synthetic rendering of the issues. From my vantage, the University 3.0 must be organised to match the largely open system structure of most problems. While that sounds logical, breaking up the silos, knowledge monopolies, and command and control systems generated in University 1.0 and 2.0 is no small task. The few significant beneficiaries of the current system (overpaid bosses and the few academic “rock stars”) can be counted on to launch a furious defence and they will have the support of many of the “paint by the numbers” education officials as well. Many US schools are riding their boats right over the waterfall unable to face the required changes. How to model the alternative and create a sense that it is possible is a key strategic question. Davydd Greenwood

  4. Fascinating piece and from my pers pective a great argument for more intra/extra curricular HE enterprise education. Particularly emphasising the positive potential of applied research in the social enterprise sector.

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