“The University to Come in Times of COVID-19” – Dennis Jansen
“But in fact, critical education only attempts to perfect professional education.”
– Fred Moten and Stefano Harney (2004, 106)
What is the future for the students of today? The question is flawed from the beginning, of course, because there is not one future for everyone, and who are these ‘students of today’ exactly? Felicitas Macgilchrist, Heidrun Allert, and Anne Bruch pose three scenarios: either we (I am a student [of] today) become uncritical prosumers, digital anarcho-capitalists, or we transform the overwhelmingly individualist tendencies of the contemporary internet to work towards a more ecologically responsible and collective society (cf. Macgilchrist, Allert, and Bruch 2020). Likely, it’s a bit of everything, but especially the former two. Many of us will not even get the chance to live anywhere else than inside capitalism. No matter how radical our theory, the current order is not on the brink of total collapse. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated its myriad systemic flaws one again—as if 2008 had not already taught the millennial generation all it needs to know—but governments throughout Europe and the Americas have faced no problems in pushing a policy that disproportionately benefits capital and disenfranchises the marginalized working poor. (Those same governments are to be held responsible for the thousands of preventable deaths that have occurred and will continue to occur through the duration of this crisis, either by COVID-19 or by direct state violence such as that inflicted on the sans-papiers at the European border every day.) In the Netherlands, more than a two-thirds majority of the population seems to be content with this approach. So much for the revolution, at least for now.
The future of the university ‘in times of corona’ is as uncertain as that of its students. Like capitalism, the university is not on the verge of facing abolition, but its workers are being stretched to their limits at absolutely every level. This was already the case before the pandemic: as academics told mostly themselves that their work is essential to a healthy society, the institution in which that labour takes place gave in to neoliberal notions of “professionalization” (cf. Moten and Harney 2004) and “impact” (cf. Hoofd 2017). Now, as some continue to proclaim that academics hold a “vital profession” (cf. Schinkel et al. 2020), universities throughout the West are requesting a further acceleration of the digitization of higher education with MOOCs, webinars, and other forms of remote teaching. Aside from the problems that individuals will have with this transition—remote learning makes actual learning more difficult in various ways—there is the question of who will provide and host these services. Will universities radically disrupt the current Silicon Valley-based tech ecosystem by developing and sharing open-source teaching software, and making their libraries available for free to anyone who needs them regardless of whether or not they can afford to pay tuition? Perhaps, but given the power that Big Tech already held over our lives before the pandemic, naïve optimism might not be the right attitude. We know how the game is played.
- Hoofd, Ingrid M. 2017. Higher Education and Technological Acceleration: The Disintegration of University Teaching and Research. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Macgilchrist, Felicitas, Heidrun Allert, and Anne Bruch. 2020. “Students and Society in the 2020s. Three Future ‘Histories’ of Education and Technology.” Learning, Media and Technology 45 (1): 76–89. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2019.1656235.
- Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. 2004. “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses.” Social Text 22 (2): 101–15.
- Schinkel, Willem, Marguerite van den Berg, Sarah Bracke, Irene van Oorschot, Rogier van Reekum, and Jess Bier. 2020. “Academics are not a vital profession.” ScienceGuide. March 20, 2020. https://www.scienceguide.nl/2020/03/academics-are-not-a-vital-profession/.