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The value of University



I recently received copies of an email to a few mailing lists I'm on, on autonomy and education, which I'm quite keen to respond to. The full email is below:

The London Free University

We believe there can be no right to annex thought and learning, to erect
concrete buildings in which to lock up knowledge.

Their universities create obedience, uniformity of thought and docility.
Beyond their gates is our intellectual freedom - within them are
the resources we need. Until these gates are opened for all we shall
remain alienated from each other and from our futures. We want to question access
to knowledge, the uniformity of success and production, and to experiment
with alternatives and the redistribution of knowledge. We invite you to cross
 these borders and see where we can go with the freedoms we create for

We're starting by doing, by learning how to hack, pirate and redistribute
knowledge whilst building alternatives. Join us in this exciting new
project and come to a planning meeting at LARC, 21st October, 6pm.

If education is not a commodity then can it be stolen?

I disagree with the directions proposed in this statement, but they're based on real concerns and deserve consideration.

As members of a university we have access to the wonderful library, but the point is that not everybody is able to attend university (or stay affiliated with one forever), and knowledge which is currently somewhat locked behind university doors could be easily made available to everyone. I am a big supporter of open access in publishing, and believe that restricting the distribution of scholarly works is ridiculous. Parts of this are being addressed. The open access journal movement is building in momentum, and some academics (particularly around my field of social science of the internet) are making their articles and books available to download freely online [incidentally, some advice to budding academics: if you have trouble finding a book chapter or article, email the author and ask for it - they want their work to be widely read, considered, and referred to, and will be very happy to hear from someone interested in what they love].

However, traditional Universities still have value far beyond mere distribution of knowledge. Interaction with academics and students interested in thinking the same subjects creates possibilities for far deeper understanding than merely reading and thinking alone (vital as these are to the process of learning). Learning is not a passive process, from books and teachers to students, but a discussion.

This discussion is what is most important and differentiating in Universities. I'm absolutely supportive of sharing course materials and recordings of lectures as widely as possible (as MIT pioneered with OpenCourseWare), but this can be done without undermining the unique value of universities to learning. To put this in economic terms, publications, recordings of lectures, and course material such as slides, are non-rival, and should be shared as widely as possible. However the time and attention of students and academics is rival, and this is where universities still have unique value.

While I sympathise with the call to 'hack, pirate and redistribute knowledge,' doing so risks causing a rift with the academic community, which would only be counterproductive to (re)building a vibrant and thoughtful society.

As for the statement that 'universities create obedience, uniformity of thought and docility', I cannot disagree with more, based on my experiences in university. I have learned to question and critique quite effectively in university - as well as outside of it - but it is especially my university experience which has encouraged and helped me to think and question with greater depth.