Understanding the University : Institution, idea, possibilities book cover
1st Edition

Understanding the University
Institution, idea, possibilities

ISBN 9781138934054
Published December 8, 2015 by Routledge
230 Pages

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Book Description

Understanding the University constitutes the final volume in a trilogy – the first two books having been Being a University (2010) and Imagining the University (2012) – and represents the trilogy’s ultimate aims and endeavours. The three volumes together offer a unique attempt at a fairly systematic and exhaustive level to map out just what it might be seriously to understand the extraordinarily complex entity that is known across the world as ‘the university’.

Through examination of the conditions and possibilities underlying and affecting universities, this work offers an understanding of specific ideas of the university which can inform policies, strategies and practices in relation to the university.

This book is a must read for leaders and senior managers in universities , as well as those undertaking postgraduate studies in the policy and practice of higher education.

Table of Contents



Part 1: Planes of understanding

  1. Reading the university
  2. The great hole
  3. Three planes of understanding
  4. Part 2: The antagonistic university

  5. Antagonisms
  6. Seven forms of dialectic
  7. Part 3: Glimpsing spaces

  8. The possibility of possibilities
  9. An inevitable remainder
  10. The real thing
  11. Holding together
  12. Part 4: Positive moments

  13. Universals and particulars
  14. The university as agent
  15. Work for the visionaries

Coda: On not living in the ruins


Bibliographic note



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Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, University College London Institute of Education.


"Ronald Barnett, the master scholar of the university, has produced a carefully researched and philosophically sophisticated reading of the role, status and possibilities of the university. Understanding the University is the last of the trilogy that included Being a University and Imagining the University. With this final volume Barnett revisits the Idea of the university to investigate its antagonistic nature and to ‘glimpse’ its possibilities and positive moments so that we are not destined to live in its ruins. It is a consummate work by a distinguished academic and a compelling read."
Professor Michael A. Peters
University of Waikato, New Zealand.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA.

"In this final volume of his trilogy on being, imagining and understanding the university, Ronald Barnett focuses on the meaning of the university: what does the university signify in a rapidly changing and increasingly globalised world? He argues that it is both a great and enduring idea and an institution capable of continual self-renewal and adaptation. Understanding the University is, as one would expect from its author, a beautifully conceived work that looks imaginatively to future possibilities while acknowledging the delicate and at times difficult balance that needs to be struck between idea and reality in any realisation of those possibilities."
Professor Jon Nixon
Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong.

"Finally a book to rescue the university from its ruins! Ronald Barnett’s latest book is compulsory reading for everyone trapped in the spiral of accelerating higher education change with deep concerns about the future of the university. Understanding the University invites us to pause to consider the fundamental task of what an enquiry into truly understanding the university might look like. Employing anti-binary devices such as creatively using critical theory while turning it on its head, he leads us simultaneously through three planes which move us downwards into the deep, generative structures of the university, across its empirical features and upwards, into a future ripe with potential. The supreme accomplishment of the book is its ability to hold together in delicate tension the antagonisms within these planes; as well as the criticism, optimism and utopia which is so necessary to help us navigate through the perniciousness of the contemporary university in order to understand the university by virtue of its possibilities."
Professor Rajani Naidoo
University of Bath, UK

"Understanding the University: Institution, Ideas, Possibilities is an intriguing, provocative and disruptive philosophical inquiry that summons its readers to understand the modern, turbulent 21st century university in terms of its forms (ideas, concepts) and their manifestation in empirical paraphernalia (institutions, buildings). The thrust of Ronald Barnett’s persuasive argument is that misunderstanding the notion of university could engender spurious and parochial dystopias of the university’s practices and in turn, ruin its potentialities, enlarged spaces and imaginative possibilities."
Professor Yusef Waghid,
Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

"Ronald Barnett’s book is a story of hope for the future of the university. It is a hope that is grounded in realism because it starts with the university as it is now. He shows how we can re-envision the university by imagining feasible possibilities through being clear about the values and concerns that matter."
Professor Leesa Wheelahan
University of Toronto, Canada.

"Understanding the University is a book of exemplary clarity in showing how to understand the university and showing, too, how it is often misunderstood. The university is both always more than it seems to be, and yet always less than the ideas held of it. Ronald Barnett offers no less than a convincing invitation to step outside the ruins of the old university while taking their abandonment as an incitation to engage in an imaginative effort to create the university anew."
Professor Jan Masschelein
University Leuven, Belgium