Dreaming the Global University

My favourite moment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes at the end of Act V, Scene I, when, after the lovers leave the stage to ‘recount [their] dreams’ on the way to the palace, Bottom enters and tries to recount his ‘dream’. Not quite believing it himself, he falters in finding the words to describe it: ‘Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was— and methought I had— but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had.’ Sometimes this moment is played for laughs, and sometimes poignantly, as Bottom’s words do evoke the fragile ephemerality of the dream that disappears even as you recall it. But then Shakespeare returns us to comic absurdity with the brilliant line ‘it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom.’ All the characters assume their experience was no more than a dream. As the audience, we know better. In life, as in the play, sometimes reality can seem like a dream. Did I ever imagine that I’d find myself in the Shard, on a Thursday afternoon, trying to catch a large, squidgy, blue cube from an eminent historian, who is also the chair of the Irish Research Council? No. I didn’t, but this surreal occurrence wasn’t a dream. I was at a symposium on the internationalisation of research, run by Warwick’s  Institute of Advanced Study and the cube was a microphone, designed to be thrown around to facilitate audience questions and a playful atmosphere. I am terrible at throwing and catching, so the appearance of said cube filled me with dread, and as I prepared to attempt to catch it, and formulate a coherent question in front of an assembly of professors, several Pro-Vice-Chancellors, Directors of various institutes, at least one Provost, and other intimidatingly intelligent types (in the Shard!), I did take a second to look down and check I was wearing trousers, in case this was just a very vivid anxiety dream.

As part of my IAS early career fellowship I was lucky enough to be able to tag along to this fascinating event at which a variety of impressive speakers discussed the future of international research collaborations in a post-Brexit era. Academia is one of the many areas of British industry that will be profoundly affected by Brexit. At present in UK universities a lot of funding, collaborations, and exchanges for both research and teaching is connected to European institutions, universities, and funding bodies. With no idea yet even of what Brexit will even look like, the future of all these is now uncertain. I was a Remainer, but I wouldn’t say I’m now a Remoaner, I’m more of a RemortallyterrifiedofwhatBrexitwillbring-er, but it looks like it’s going to happen, so how should UK universities respond? Over the course of the event various ideas and possibilities were discussed, including the importance of making connections outside of Europe, and seeing this challenge as an opportunity to develop as a university with truly global connections. Other speakers talked about the need to see Brexit as an opportunity to realise the valuable relationships and collaborations that UK Universities have with European institutions, and to stop taking these for granted. Legislative changes might be an opportunity to secure these connections in a stronger and more mutually beneficial way. As the day continued, more and more, the ethical dimensions of the idea of the global university, of international collaborations, and of academic research itself came into focus. The two speakers I found particularly striking were Dr Emily Henderson (University of Warwick) and Prof Wendy Larner (Victoria University of Wellington). Dr Henderson talked about the function of privilege in UK institutions (among other things, her research has shown how the system still favours the single male researcher) and challenged the room to think about how that could change. Prof Larner warned against the neo-colonial tendencies emerging in so-called global academia. Too often collaborations with prestigious UK universities can be one-way relationships that deliver a nugget of British University education to another country as if they were the only partner that had something to offer. This arrogant position harks back to the conditions of empire when Britain literally imposed an education system and a system of cultural values onto colonized places and peoples. Prof Larner talked about the need for real conversation and equal partnerships. For me, the message of the day seemed to be that if Brexit is an opportunity for UK universities to develop globally, create new international connections, and to improve and strengthen existing connections both within and outside the EU, it must also be an opportunity to do so in an ethical way that nurtures meaningful and mutually beneficial connections between institutions, and doesn’t promote a regressive, neo-colonial identity for UK universities, nor should it perpetuate a system of privilege, which ignores the material concerns of its workers, that can often be seen lurking within academic institutions. If this really is an opportunity for change, let’s press the reset button, and really change the system, in a way that’s not only economically, but also socially and culturally beneficial to all partners.

I left the symposium feeling excited and inspired. Not only because I had been to the Shard – because that was pretty exciting – but because I felt that some of the people in that room might really do something important. The dream is, that the nightmarish scenario that is Brexit might become an opportunity as well. Universities, and plenty of other institutions and businesses for that matter, have the opportunity to reassess, rebuild, and change direction, and that direction could be really exciting. The 'dreamers' of A Midsummer Night's Dream deny what they have experienced as improbable, but their experience does change their lives. Hermia and Helena begin the play in your classic patriarchal nightmare (Hermia has to marry according to her father's wishes or choose between death and a nunnery, and don't even get me started on Helena), but the so-called dream enables them both to act and live according to their own choices. They escape (to some extent) but no effort is made by anyone in the play to change the system. Is that what will happen here? Perhaps it was the altitude that made the goings on in the Shard seem a little surreal, but the idea of an ethical, global university should not be dismissed as a dream. The project is improbable only in that it is a great deal more difficult than doing things the way they have always been done.This could be an exciting opportunity to really change the system, and I hope it will be. 

The Shard, from www.visitlondon.com


Popular Posts