The relationship between teaching and research goes to the heart of the meaning and purpose of higher education. The fundamentalist view of the university is that teaching which is not based on research carried out by academics and students is not higher education. The first modern European university, established by Wilhelm von Humboldt in Berlin in 1810, was designed with research and teaching closely aligned. Students and teachers worked together. This model was developed to facilitate the production of new knowledge, against the dogmatic scholasticism of the medieval university, and to establish the “idea of the university” as the highest level of what a society knows about itself as a progressive political project.
The idea of the university as a progressive political project was further radicalised by the students and their teachers in 1968. In Paris and around the world the elitist exclusion of students was challenged by undergraduates who claimed that research is “something that anyone can do”, a claim they supported by publishing work that revealed not just the crisis in higher education but the crisis of society in general. The ongoing student protests in the UK and around the world are at their most compelling when they provide a critical response not simply to cuts in funding but to the debate about the future of higher education. This means discussing the idea of the university as part of a wider debate relating to issues of who has the resources to produce new knowledge, who owns that knowledge and what it is used for beyond the confines of campus life.
The slogan “Student as producer” is derived from an article written by the Marxist intellectual Walter Benjamin in Germany in the 1930s. In it he made a series of suggestions as to how radical intellectuals should act in a time of social crisis. This included finding ways to enable students, readers, and audiences to become teachers, writers and actors – as producers of their own cultural and intellectual products. The wider political point was for passive consumers of culture and knowledge to transform themselves into the subjects rather than simply the objects of history and to recognise themselves in a social world of their own design.
In a moment when higher education is in crisis, and in a context where the crisis of institutions is part of a much wider crisis at the level of global society, a critical engagement with the notion of student as producer, based on Benjamin’s progressive programme for action, seems like the right place from which to be reinventing the undergraduate curriculum.
The way to improve the student learning experience is not to treat students as consumers nor to claim, as the white paper on higher education does, that students lie at the “heart of the system”. It is rather by recognising that universities are about the expansive production of knowledge and meaning and that this can best be achieved by students and academics working collaboratively on research projects inside and outside the curriculum.
Examples of undergraduate research:
The British Conference for Undergraduate Research
Reinvention: A Journal of Undergraduate Research
Student as Producer: reinventing the undergraduate curriculum
Higher Education Academy : Developing Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (pdf)
Undergraduate Research in Australia