18 septembre 2012

Universities at the Margins: Forging New Spaces for Learning in Alternative Higher Education

Nous remercions l'European Educational Research Association (EERA) pour avoir présenté Lyon Zéro comme l'une des nouvelles universités alternatives du monde.

Présentation de l'EERA : EERA was founded to encourage collaboration amongst educational researchers in Europe, promote communication between educational researchers and international governmental organisations and to disseminate and highlight the findings of educational research. Read more.

Nous reproduisons ici l'article original (en Anglais) dans son intégralité :

Universities at the Margins: Forging New Spaces for Learning in Alternative Higher Education

Author(s):Tristan McCowan (submitting/presenting), Marika Tsolakis (presenting)

Conference: ECER 2012, The Need for Educational Research to Champion Freedom, Education and Development for All

Network: 22. Research in Higher Education

Format: Paper

Session Information

22 SES 03 D, Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education

Parallel Paper Session

Time: 2012-09-18
17:15 - 18:45

Room: FFL - Aula 28

Chair: Jussi Välimaa

In recent years, many commentators have diagnosed some form of crisis in the higher education sector (e.g. Barnett 1999; Readings 1996; Unterhalter & Carpentier 2010). While the number and size of private institutions, many of which are for-profit, has rapidly increased in recent decades (Altbach et al. 2009), public universities have also undergone processes of privatisation, with ‘cost-sharing’ policies becoming the norm. The introduction of variable fees (even if mitigated by the existence of loans and scholarships) serves to exacerbate social stratification, while beyond the national level, there are increasing international inequalities, with institutions aiming to improve their league table position and compete for a piece of the globally mobile student cake. The rise of ‘academic capitalism’ (Ylijoki 2003) and the ‘entrepreneurial university’ (Slaughter & Leslie 1997) position higher education firmly as a private good, one providing benefit primarily to individuals – benefits conceived in terms of economic value, rather than citizenship, culture or intellectual development.

Around the world, new forms of university are being established in response to these global trends. Examples include the University of the Land (UNITIERRA) and the Intercultural Universities in Mexico, the University of Latin American Integration in Brazil, Evergreen University and Sphere College in the United States, Lyon Zero University in France, University of the Third Age in Canada, Earth University in India, and the virtual Peer 2 Peer University, to name a few (Berg 2011; Giambartolomei 2009; Teamey forthcoming).

This paper aims to understand the new forms of learning enabled by these alternative universities. A number of small-scale alternative higher education initiatives have emerged in England in recent years, providing an ideal basis to study innovative practices and their impacts. These universities range from the highly organised, such as Schumacher College in Plymouth which retains many conventions of traditional HE (Blake & Sterling 2011), to informal, ‘spaceless’ learning institutes such as the Really Open University,  the Free University in London and the Social Science Centre in Lincoln whose courses and structure are more fluid.

The research conceptualises alternative universities in England as communities of practice (CoP) (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) to consider their structural and pedagogical characteristics. As CoPs, they often seek to break down the traditional teacher-learner barrier and instil an environment of mutual experience and sharing. Second, they often comprise a group of people who are seeking to expand their knowledge and do so in working together. Furthermore, they remain open to anyone committed to similar interests and their existence relies on participation of members or students. However, CoP cannot fully encompass the politicised and transformational aims of these alternative universities and therefore also requires a Freirean lens through which to evaluate learning and broader outcomes of participation. Specifically, Freire’s (1972) notions of problematisation and conscientisation are employed: the former to describe the process of unsettling of common sense and unquestioned assumptions, and the latter the process of deepening political awareness in conjunction with action for social transformation.


In order to explore these learning spaces, three case studies were undertaken of current initiatives in England: the Free University in London, Schumacher College in Plymouth and OpenLearn, a free service provided by the Open University. For each, in-depth interviews were conducted with various stakeholders, including the founders of the universities, students and facilitators. Participant observations were carried out of taught sessions, network meetings and other university activities. There was also documentary analysis relating to background documents and mission statements of the universities, curriculum materials and web-based discussion boards. As Teamey (forthcoming) suggests, it is important to explore the reasons for emergence of these universities, and their possible commonalities in terms of aims, scope, learning processes, taught subjects, evaluation, research, and degree granting. By surveying and evaluating this growing system of alternative HE, we can then comprehend its role and value. Furthermore, certain qualities of alternative universities may shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of the traditional system from which it seeks to distance itself.

Expected Outcomes

While the physical and ontological spaces that they occupy vary greatly, these new universities generally arise from a set of three main motivations: first, concerns over the degradation of the purpose of the university, and the instrumentalisation of teaching and research (Chiang 2004; Ylijoki 2003); second, the aim of political conscientisation in the context of mobilisation against global capitalism; and third, enabling provision for populations denied access to mainstream higher education (Berg 2011; Teamey forthcoming). The alternative universities also display considerable diversity as regards the distance or proximity to mainstream models in terms of accreditation, traditional disciplines and pedagogy. In terms of the new learning spaces established, emerging findings show significant challenges to ‘banking’ forms of education (Freire 1972), with evidence of collective consciousness-raising and horizational pedagogical relationships. More broadly, evidence of decommercialisation of higher education is observed, with a firmly public value given to the experience and outcomes. Nevertheless, the imprint of traditional curricular forms is still evident, with provision mostly organised in ‘classes’ and ‘courses’, and reliant on expert knowledge. Finally, implications of the findings are drawn out for the prospects of new universities around the world.


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Author Information

Tristan McCowan (submitting/presenting)
Institute of Education, University of London, United Kingdom

Marika Tsolakis
Institute of Education

Policy and Society


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