The University in the Knowledge Society: A Neo-Institutionalist Approach to the ‘Idea’ of the University
This thesis is an investigation into fundamental questions concerning the aims, purpose and goals of the university within the emerging 21st Century post-industrial, Knowledge Society (KS). Inquiries of this nature are often referred to as the ‘idea’ of the university and whilst a growing academic literature questions what an ‘idea’ for the institution may look like in light of the arguably unique context of the Knowledge Society, it has yet to be fully addressed. In order to do so, this thesis is methodologically framed by the sociological school of neo-institutionalism. This is a perspective within institutional theory which views institutions as not passive recipients of social values but able to dictate their own ideals upon society. The university in this view becomes a ‘primary institution’ capable to imprint its values upon the KS and thus giving it a prominent role in that society.
In order to articulate an ‘idea’ of the university, the thesis begins with a critical review of the literature, specifically the manner in which university-KS relations are conceived. This concludes with a summative statement about such relations in the form of the ‘problem of knowledge’ i.e. an attitude which increasingly reduces knowledge in the university to means-end and economic propositions. An alternative conceptualisation is proposed which offers an optimistic approach to the university in the KS, one conceived through presumptions by the neo-institutionalist school and coined ‘Knowledge Plasticity’.
As there are no formal methods for creating an ‘idea’, the second part of the thesis undertakes an extensive review of seminal works in the field revealing three conditions to which such proposals generally conform. Taken together, these conditions serve as the methodological frame for creating an ‘idea’ for the university. The first of these, contextual clarity, having been achieved through the literature review, moves to the second condition, theoretical development, and entails an exploration of Knowledge Plasticity. This investigation reveals a ‘tension of imbalance’ within this concept which the ‘idea’ of the university must resolve, this being the final condition of the ‘idea’. In order to do this, the ‘University of Imagination’ is identified as the ‘idea’ whose purpose is to bring about dynamic balance within the institution. Finally, the proposed University of Imagination is compared with the classical Liberal university suggesting a more effective means for the liberal ‘idea’ to become realised in the KS namely, through engaging with the former. As a philosophical contribution to the literature, the University of Imagination encourages us to be optimistic and emboldened by the project of education and offers a path to navigate the challenges and uncertainties facing the university in the 21st Century.