The ‘porous’ university

There is a growing consensus that we need to find new ways of generating wealth. Sites and activities we may once have cherished as ‘independent’ or ‘autonomous’ become willing or unwilling agents in evolving mechanisms of capture and appropriation. One area where this is emerging is the university. Previously understood as the ‘ivory tower’ it was sheltered from the shifting demands of the market. As resources decline and global competition grows it must now find ways of situating itself within new networks of value. What is quietly transpiring is a fundamentally new type of institution. As the university slowly adapts as a hub for the ‘creative’ economy it must develop new relations with the city it once rejected.

In 2009 Dermot Desmond launched his new ‘philanthropic’ project: ‘Cultural Odyssey: Creating a Global University for Culture and the Performing arts’. Desmond proposed a global university based in Ireland which would become a hub for culture and the arts. It would be connected by the internet, and thus open to all, but based in a number of affiliate institutions that could hold events and real-world encounters. The online manifesto states: “Our ambition is to make the expertise and experience of universities in Ireland and around the world accessible to greater numbers of students. Equipped with the intelligence and reach of the Global Hub, we will broker the provision of modules from existing higher education providers. We shall do so by identifying demand and matching it to suppliers. This will provide new streams of income and new markets to participating institutions.

Desmond’s proposal is to ‘disrupt the current model’ of university education. What dictates this shift from the ‘traditional’ university to the ‘porous’ university? Desmond’s analysis, as usual, is accurate: the current university model is not sustainable. Even before the state decided to re-channel resources from public institutions to banks and speculators the writing was on the wall. Demand now far outstrips supply. The cost to a heavily burdened state of providing ‘traditional’ university education in Ireland alone is 428 million euro a year. Already the government and the universities have accepted the necessity of re-introducing fees as massive cuts to core funding are set to continue. As ‘traditional’ education becomes obsolete, new demands and opportunities arise. Currently these opportunities, and precisely how they can produce value, are hard to quantify: knowledge and creative output are not as easy to gauge as the production of cars or grain. One part of the institutional shift is the need to develop more efficient ways of identifying and capturing the wealth of ‘untapped’ creativity that flows through the university and the city.

What makes Desmond’s university for the arts and culture so special is that it is a not- for- profit organisation. Unlike existing universities that are being attacked for the re-introduction of fees in order to ‘survive’ Desmond can present his model as a benign, philanthropic charity encouraging the ‘best of humanity’. Fees will not be charged, state of the art facilities will be free to those who qualify on merit of their work. Money will be generated through the creation of a new brand. The aim is to create an institution like RADA or Julliard and from this brand to create connections and alliances with other institutions, spaces, activities and resources so as to build a thriving network of creativity; a constant circulation of ideas and innovation. Income will be generated by spin off projects that are be promised by such a rich concentration of creative thinking matched by the growing demand for new ‘experiences’.

Already this year, backed by artists, writers and academics, the project has a proposal to acquire the Grangegorman buildings as part of Dublin Institute of Technology. Taking up a permanent place in Bolton St. would allow the centre to develop vital connections with other institutions (including other universities) in the city and the country. Suggestions for the use of heritage houses and empty spaces (after the collapse of the property market) are made in terms of regenerating the area and developing on the already rich and successful tradition of residency programmes. These alliances would give the “incentive for the creation of a new bohemian quarter around Bolton Street and Henrietta Street, spreading towards the Liffey like a slow tributary tide, spawning galleries, studios, workshops, cafés, meeting places, exchanges and interactions of all kinds.”




Desmond is not the only one exploiting new possibilities in the provision of education and the economic value associated with it. Trinity College and UCD have been fomenting relations for several years now as they harbour ambitions of developing a united university ‘brand’. A central part of this is the idea of the university as part of a ‘creative ecosystem’ within the city.

Last year Trinity commissioned a report, ‘Creativity, the City and the University’ which identified the ‘knowledge’ city as the bedrock of the ‘smart’ economy. A ‘Cultural Policy Research Group’ is examining the ‘role of student extracurricular activity and its potential links to the university and city’, with a report due in May. A new post of ‘cultural co-ordinator’ has been established to develop and strengthen links between the university and other cultural institutions in Dublin. The example they are hoping to imitate is Columbia University in New York which had the mission of making ‘all of Manhattan our campus’.

University managers have been complaining for years about the difficulties of maintaining quality and competitive third level education without any new investment. They have been amongst the first calling for the re-introduction of fees as the only ‘rational’ thing to do. As blame for the abandonment of third level education is placed at the feet of an incompetent state these institutions are already thinking within a global context, fighting to ensure they can hold their own in an increasingly desperate struggle for resources: competing for quality lecturers who bring the promise of research funding, for international students who pay inflated tuition fees, for funding from the state, the EU and private investors, for contracts in the development of commercial knowledge for industries such as pharmaceuticals and gaming technology. The consensus that the market is our only reality becomes evident when our education is subordinated to this constant demand to ‘adapt’ to the irrationalities of global competition.

‘Creativity’ has the benefit of appearing as universally positive and benign. But it is clear that it is an intrinsic part of an emerging consensus on the future of the university, the city and the economy. The ‘creative’ university, in the ‘creative’ city, is not just the avant-garde of capitalism; it is also the emergence of a new form of institutionality, one that makes familiar distinctions between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ impossible. When students stormed the university walls in 1968 their mission was to liberate new desires, to create a university open to all. Now we are faced with the prospect of a monstrous institution that is attempting to do just that. The institution becomes the instrument of market logic, enclosing more areas of the city, extending the consensus.

But our creativity remains our power, emerging from our thoughts, our desires and our relationships. Creativity is our commons. The question is how to turn this power into counter-institutional power, resistance that works against the consensus. To begin with we need to stop thinking so positively. We need to refuse the happy consensus on creativity. We need to resist being part of the solution. We need to develop a new counter-culture borne out of a negation of the emerging status quo. We need to claim spaces and activities of antagonism, ‘unaesthetic’ alliances and collaborations that challenge the limited and exclusive vision of the ‘creative’ city.

P. Bresnihan



Research and Innovation in Trinity College Dublin