Re-imagining universities

What if university campuses were designed around central allotments?

In a previous post, I provided some glimpses of the conclusion of my book. Here, I want to expand on this, as I am finalizing my book manuscript. A second round of reviews was very positive, with the conclusion described as ‘a delightful little chapter that contains a wealth of interesting ideas.’ So I want to present a few more of these ideas here and hope that you enjoy reading them, while I get my book ready for production! I should also have a final cover soon and will begin presenting ideas from the book on April 20, at the online Global Festival of Active Learning.

In higher education, capstone projects are final projects undertaken by students as the crowning accomplishments of their learning journeys. I use them as potential spaces for students to imagine and work towards radical alternatives to current challenges. In this spirit, the conclusion to Creative Universities is presented as a series of experimental capstone projects, as prototypes of potential future uses of a critical-creative pedagogy. They are conceived as open-ended action research, carried out within universities that become experimental spaces supported by adequate spaces, materials and funding.

The project teams would encompass student members from as many different disciplinary backgrounds as possible, supported by staff and PhD researchers from at least three faculties. They guide students in identifying, researching and addressing challenges that affect universities – effectively asking students to dig where they stand – but have further-reaching impacts. Project work begins with collectively formulating a challenge, researching it from a decolonial perspective, iteratively designing possible responses to the challenge and then implementing one of them. During this process, students work with research groups and student societies on campus, as well as with community organisations, activist collectives or other institutions that advocate for alternative futures. These diverse groups become active collaborators rather than just placeholders for internships; they engage with students in collective labor from projects’ inception to their implementation. Below are some examples:

Opening up learning: decolonizing field trips and global classrooms

The emphasis of the first theme is on connecting universities, and learning within them, to both their immediate surroundings and wider worlds. It takes inspirations from the Remaking Academic Identities and Prefiguring Alternatives chapters. For the first project, students would design and undertake a decolonized field module. They begin by thinking about the pedagogical foundations of a field trip that would not replicate development tourism or nature edu-tainment but enable collective learning about social, ecological and other transformations through collaborative experiments with partner organizations. Students would consider questions such as

  • what is to be learned, where, by whom, in what ways and toward what ends?
  • How can field engagements can be opened up to epistemic diversity and enact whole-person learning?
  • How do students position themselves as learners rather than helpers, decentre themselves, unlearn their certainties and become open to being challenged?
  • How can they ask questions and listen deeply before suggesting actions, if any?
  • How can decolonial field engagements be imagined, created and enacted in theory and practice, in praxis?
How can field trips and global classrooms be decolonized? Photocredit: Raquel Duran

A second, related project would focus on designing a global classroom around a current challenge. Aiming for stationary connectivity and experimenting with multiple technological possibilities, students would agree on a challenge with their international co-learners, research how it has been addressed in their own locations and then explore questions including:

  • To what extent can local responses could be transplanted and global initiatives be incorporated into local responses?
  • What is the potential to connect and amplify local responses, through pluriversal modes of engagement that work with multiple ways of being, learning and making in diverse worlds?
  • How can these different modes of learning be maintained rather than flattened or homogenised?
  • How can epistemic diversity be ensured in global classrooms?
  • How can writing be decentered?
  • How best to govern collaborative learning platforms and spaces to ensure equitable participation?

Sustain-able campuses: mobilities and food

This theme takes its inspiration from the Repairing Ecologies chapter, which focuses on students developing deep ecology, sustain-ability and systems-approaches, and extends it to university campuses and their surroundings, and the multiple and diverse labors and lives that take place on them. The first project is the food project described here. The second calls on students to prototype an integrated mobility plan, with mobility being conceived as a transdisciplinary issue with far-reaching effects that impact human and non-human campus inhabitants in interconnected ways. Students begin by thinking about different means of transportation and their effects on the natural and human environments of campuses and their environs, and then extend these to design in elements of accessibility and safety, physical and mental health, creative and community aspects. This process can be guided by design questions:

  • What if commuting to university could itself become a learning experience?
  • What if mobility was not merely an instrumental necessity but became an enriching, convivial experience?
  • What if diverse means of mobility were generous, not only not polluting the environment but instead releasing clean air or water into it? 

Re-imaging universities

In this third theme, student groups would experiment with radically rethinking universities through the lens of economic and social justice. Drawing on insights especially from Remaking Academic Identities and Reclaiming Economies chapter, the projects in this theme challenge students to reflect on their personal and institutional identities and locations, and to imagine different ways of being students and engaging with universities.

How did the construction of Sussex campus in the middle of what
later became the South Downs National Park alter its surroundings? Photo credit: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/images/alumni/scrapbook/60s/places/places_60s.htm

For the first project student groups generate a comprehensive history of the present of their university and its connections to the world. In the case of Sussex, for example, research would go beyond its radical past that is a frequent reference point, and include the university’s impact on its immediate surroundings, given that was built in the vicinity of a small village and the middle of the South Downs National Park.

  • How has this building activity and the resulting mini-city of several thousand residents altered the landscape, ecological systems and human-non-human relations?
  • How has the continuous growth of universities impacted neighboring towns and affected urban dynamics, house prices and gentrification?
  • How have universities helped shape creative environments, through collaborations with other local universities or international networks?
  • How have universities engaged with community groups and local governments and to what purposes and effects?

To answer these questions, student groups conduct primary and secondary research, and then creatively present their universities as long-standing neighbours to many different communities, human and non-human. From such a historically-grounded perspective, students then develop future scenarios that might not involve the usual growth ambitions, but rather focus on the quality of relationships and the meaningful contributions universities can make, while also being honest about their detrimental effects. Ultimately, this project challenges students to interrogate what it means to be a student in multiple, often ambiguous, ways.

Last but certainly not least, a project could explore what radically inclusive universities would look like. Starting with the question of what does that mean and what does it take to make them so, students consider a wide variety of intersecting elements.

  • What if university education were to become free again?
  • How would it be funded? How has HE been funded in the UK in the past and what are funding models in other countries where universities remain much more accessible?
  • What alternative governance modes would that enable?
  • How might existing experiments such as popular universities around the world, cooperative universities like the Mondragon University and the Free Universities that have been established in some cities such as Brighton be expanded?
  • What would the effects of non-commodified HE be?
  • What are its potentials to address and abolish structural hierarchies and exclusions, based on race, gender, abilities?
  • What else needs to happen to make universities radically inclusive?

This would help students develop an understanding of how government policies are made and interlink with broader regimes such as neoliberalism. One possibility could be for groups to experiment with campus-wide basic income schemes that ensure all students and staff the financial means to cover their basic needs. Such schemes could work with alternative campus currencies, taking their inspiration from the local currency schemes that are in existence in many towns. 

Through such multi-faceted projects, student groups address pragmatic, political and philosophical questions of responsibility, equality and justice. Public presentations of the outcomes of these projects can become manifestations of critical-creative learning and showcases for the heterodox possibilities and pluriversal alternatives that can be created within universities and above all serve as a celebration of critical hope.  


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