Pre-Pandemic University Models: The Ecological University

How is a University different from all other types of social structures? First of all, it is distinguished by its self-reflection and its self-description. It is believed that thanks to these particular properties it has existed for more than 800 years. In other words, a University is designed not only to educate and conduct research, but also to critically evaluate its own values, mission, and academic practices by describing them in various forms, such as charters, codes of regulations, and all types of publications. University’s activities do not have any distinct boundaries. When such are proposed, a University starts losing its ability to resurrect under new conditions. Self-reflection and self-description, along being free of limitations provide a University with the amazing ability to regenerate and to adapt to the most complicated historical circumstances.

The discourse on exciting and potential university models is ongoing. However, from time to time it becomes more active and diverse in terms of opinions. As a rule, it happens at the change of epochs, in times of technological (or industrial) revolutions. This is exactly where we are right now. The pandemic has contributed to how we see a modern University and most probable ways of its development.

For Tomsk State University it is very important to engage in the discourse because we are preparing to participate in the Strategic Academic Leadership Program announced by the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education. Being a frontier university at the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to reflect on the upcoming trends and try to get a glimpse of the future. This is why we are launching a series of reviews on the models of universities proposed by various authors in publications that have become objects of attention within the academic community. I hope that these will be of interest to the working groups involved in developing the roadmap for the application to the Strategic Academic Leadership Program. 2.png

Ronald Barnett is one of the authors who has brought the discourse on the inevitable transformation of a University to a new level. Ronald Barnett is a social philosopher, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, and a consultant of the University College London.

He began his famous inaugural lecture “Realizing the University” with the words “Western university is dead. It is hard to believe, but this is reality.” At the same time, Ronald Barnett still hopes for a miracle that one day a New University will appear due to its unique nature. He believes that the logic of supercomplexity of the modern world and the ambiguousness of a University as a concept make it possible for its various versions to co-exist under certain conditions.

Ronald Barnett examines the diversity in the form and structure of the University and maps the landscape of different university formats. This is done in an effort to enrich and deepen this landscape and push the conceptualization of the university beyond the contemporary formats of the neoliberal university. In the book The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia, Barnett develops a grid for mapping the idea of the university into four quadrants, each with its own structure and being, resulting in a multitude of different universities—or ‘imaginings of the university’.

In the age of supercomplexity, University’s goals become more and more complicated and grow in number. Therefore, the re-evaluation of its mission takes place. It represents the idea that the University must generate supercomplexity and teach how to live with it. The new epoch makes it difficult for the University to develop long-term and more or less constant strategic goals. The major call of the University is to be continuously re-evaluated and re-interpreted.

Of course, not all of Barnett's thoughts on the coming University are indisputable. However, most of them are still relevant and still serve as a socio-philosophical basis for other authors to propose models of universities of their own. Therefore, it is worth giving a little more detail about them.

Barnett has identified several principles that should be considered when developing any university model. They can be described in the following theses:

Apart from scientific knowledge, there are many other types of knowledge that influence each other. The type of knowledge with the highest value today is the one that has the greatest application. The ability to acquire knowledge is being increasingly reduced to the ability to process different types of data. The variability and fluidity of the world have reached their apogee, as a result, the world is becoming not just unknowable, but "radically unknowable." Ignorance has replaced knowledge.

The concepts of "truth" and "knowledge" represent the ideals of the Enlightenment. They cannot be used to justify the modern University. Its ideology is described by the phrase "realizing one's capabilities." The concepts of democracy, justice, citizenship, and society should be part of realizing a modern University, but they cannot fill its main goals with content. These goals can be described using such concepts as uncertainty, unpredictability, controversy, instability, risk, disorder, and volatility.

Despite the fact that many people still believe in the development of personal identity as the main task of higher education, the very concept of personal identity in the postmodern era has been called into question. Moreover, a modern university should be built on the awareness that everything in the modern world is in doubt, including all existing structures and value systems.

The world is characterized by supercomplexity. This degree of complexity requires new ways of survival and, if possible, even prosperity in conditions where all theories are constantly tested and questioned.


The university is exactly the place where such supercomplexity is born. At the same time, one learns how to survive in it by mastering the skill to handle numerous forms of cognition, existence, and activity.

The university must shape within itself and deliberately create a situation in which one can think about the unthinkable.

The concept of a new University should be based on critical interdisciplinarity and collective introspection, which are expressed in constant discussions between representatives of various scientific disciplines and areas; in clashes of opinions and dialogue that lead to fresh ideas, alternative prospects of development, and to making goals more complicated. It all results in "creating a situation in which you can think about the unthinkable."

The flexibility of boundaries within the University is provided by creating numerous forms of academic identity both in the horizontal plane (over the disciplinary boundaries at the level of various university structures) and in the vertical (within the framework of individual departments, laboratories, and faculty).

The University is inevitably engaged because it needs to survive in a society in which knowledge exists in various forms and institutions, procedures, and definitions. The University is forced to ally with industry, business, and external consultants to maintain its place in the knowledge production market.


The communicative tolerance of the University is expressed in maintaining its ability to speak out in a variety of voices, as well as in its ability to conduct external discourses in ‘languages’ understandable to various audiences: the media, political and business structures, government officials, and others.

The value system of the modern University is determined by its collective self-irony, which helps it survive in a world where nothing is certain and where one has to deal with conflicting discourses.

Barnett also draws attention to the fact that in order to master the process of producing supercomplexity and managing it, the University must have a variety of professional resources that help expand the palette of its imaginary opportunities. The paradox is that the universities, being involved in the production of knowledge, know very little about the real potential of their research and teaching staff. Therefore, they must periodically conduct “detailed epistemological and professional audits” of their employees. At the new University, academic managers also play an important role. Their task is to develop a collective understanding of the situation of uncertainty.

This situation of uncertainty is manifested, among other things, in the fact that the category of "researcher" has lost its clarity:

“A scientist is required to be able to manage the multiple frameworks of not only thought, but also activity, self-knowledge, and communication. A supercomplex world needs researchers with a bold identity; those who are ready to cooperate with politicians and government officials, who are able to get used to their discourses and speak in a language they understand. Then scientists will begin to live in the real everyday world. They will become a kind of communicators. Such "humility" on the part of scientists opens the door to many different interpretations of any situation. For example, the idea of ​​"solving a problem" as the goal and essence of research should change. There is no rigid concept of solving a problem since there are no solutions to problems at all. There are only discourses of understanding the problems, which are controversial in themselves. Thus, scholars must learn to skillfully handle discourses surrounded by rival discourses and opposition blocs. Scientists will have to become a type of public figure, even politicians, but in their own fields."

According to Barnett, it is necessary to critically reflect on the meaning and objectives of higher education, proceeding from at least two meanings of the very concept of “higher education”. It is higher because: 1) it reveals the controversy of the framework of a higher order that helps a person to understand the world; 2) it involves those who are called upon to develop as human beings, capable of assimilating higher-order uncertainty and adapting to it.

A high-quality education in a modern university presupposes the formation of an appropriate attitude towards uncertainty, both on the part of academic teachers and students. It should be organized in such a way that the former can take uncertainty as a form of existence in conditions of supercomplexity. In the minds of the latter, it should generate an awareness of this uncertainty and prepare them for a comfortable life in this fragile world of supercomplexity. 5.jpg

According to Barnett, in a university built on the principle of uncertainty, it is necessary to abandon the old and narrow meaning of the concept of "teaching" only as a process of transferring knowledge and acquiring professional skills. It is necessary to develop new teaching methods that allow students to learn to formulate doubts and gain experience in mastering controversy as such. Lectures should be replaced with interactive teaching methods such as debates and workshops, giving students the opportunity to work with conflicting ideas and perspectives. Especially noteworthy is Barnett's idea that for students to successfully develop an appropriate attitude towards uncertainty and the ability to formulate their doubts, it is necessary to "induce fermentation in their minds" and "just believe in them."

Barnett is well aware that teaching of this kind requires a long-term commitment to students. It is necessary to constantly communicate with them, stimulate their self-confidence, help them to realize their own achievements. It should come as no surprise if, given these teaching requirements, many scholars prefer a research career to teaching.

At the same time, Barnett asks a provocative question: "Does the university need students at all?" His own answer is "Perhaps some twenty-first-century universities will simply offer their products on the market due to the fact that teaching students is not profitable enough to make it their ‘core business’".


Barnett's inaugural lecture ends in about the same way as one of the most famous Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates and another ancient Greek philosopher-sophist take their time to argue about "what the Beautiful is." In the end, they come to the conclusion that "the Beautiful is complicated." So Barnett ends his lecture with the words: “The University is a complex structure. (…) How does the university, on the one hand, develop the knowledge necessary for power and control over the world, and, on the other hand, deepen the understanding between people and the world? How does it manage to simultaneously carry education and criticism, and meet the demands of economic revival and growth? It is tempting to say that this is fundamentally impossible. But this is not the case. The University must do all those things, despite their inconsistencies. (…) The University should help us to live in conditions of uncertainty and even teach us to enjoy it. This task is before us, and in a world where total uncertainty reigns, it cannot be the other way."

After the lecture of 1997, Ronald Barnett published a number of articles and books in which he continued his "understanding of the University." One of his last works, which also became very famous, is the monograph The Ecological University7.jpg

In The Ecological University, Ronald Barnett argues that universities are falling short of their potential and responsibilities in an ever-changing and challenging environment. He proposes a new model and despite its apparent utopianism and abstractness, it has the greatest potential in terms of further evolution of higher education The University is interconnected with a number of ecosystems: knowledge, social institutions, persons, the economy, learning, culture, and the natural environment. These seven ecosystems of the university are all fragile and in order to advance and develop them, universities need to engage with each one. Unlike the Humboldt University, which exists "on its own", and the entrepreneurial one, which lives "for itself", the ecological university, involved in all ecosystems of the world, functions "for the others."

Here are some of Barnett's arguments in favor of the 21st-century university to be actively concerned about the state of the entire earth and even the universe.

- The very concept of a University (the word came from the Latin Universitas - totality, community) initially carries the meaning of universality and the Universe.

- The University has acquired resources and strength and therefore has the opportunity to take care of the ecosystems in which it is involved.

- In the 21st century, these ecosystems are not outside the University. They and the University flow into each other. Through this interconnection, these ecosystems have become the "deep ecology" of the University.

- Different universities are involved in the seven ecosystems in different ways, thus creating unique environmental opportunities for each university.

- The Ecological University will fully manifest itself when a university - any university - not only interacts with its ecological periphery but when this interaction becomes inseparable and acquires an ecological essence.

- The Ecological University is an ethical university with responsibility for developing its own capabilities to promote the well-being of the seven ecosystems.

- The process of developing the ecological capabilities of each university, requiring imagination and institutional fearlessness, has no end in either time or space. The Ecological University is in a state of constant emergence, as it develops its ecological profile in all seven ecosystems, "distributes" itself through them, and constantly change.

- The idea of ​​the Ecological University is both realistic and idealistic, critical, and radical.

- Perhaps the idea of ​​the Ecological University will never be fully realized. However, there are good reasons to believe that it may well materialize to a large extent. The world still has a chance to realize WHAT the University can offer and what its true place in the world is.

- The rudimentary signs of the Ecological University already exist. Yes, the ecological university is utopian, but it is a feasible utopia.

You can now learn more about the concept of R. Barnett's Ecological University in the Russian edition of his book, first translated and published by the Publishing House of Tomsk State University.


Ronald Barnett is one of the first to raise the question of the need for a radical transformation of the University at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. However, the Ecological University is just one of the options for such a transformation proposed in the pre-pandemic era. It certainly deserves a lot of attention in view of their high value and ethical foundations. But the academic world and the general public have been presented with some other scenarios for the evolution of the University, which will be discussed in the next issues of the blog.                                                                                 

 Eduard Galazhinskiy

 Translated by Snezhana Nosova