01 Oct

What’s Wrong with the Ivory Tower?

Posted By Politybooks

A beaming Rebecca slowly opens the envelope and a broad smile appears on her face as she announces her A-level results. “Oh my God, three A stars and two A’s, I can’t believe it!”, she gasps before dashing off to hug her mother and friends. Revealing exam results live on TV news has become a summer ritual, a public rite of passage representing the experience of young people who now have an expectation, rather than a vague hope, of moving smoothly from school or college to University and, beyond that, into well-paid careers.

However, for this year’s students the process has been far from smooth. Economic recession, looming public spending cuts and a reduction in government funding for the English university sector by some £649 million has led to uncertainty about where the sector as a whole is heading. After more than a decade of expansion to create a mass HE system, contraction now seems inevitable. Prospective graduates also fear that their fees will have to rise and there will just not be enough graduate-type jobs when they leave, all of which calls into question the value of all that hard study they put themselves through.

Are their fears justified? According to the President of the International Sociological Association, Michael Burawoy, the answer is yes. Indeed, the International Sociological Association (ISA) has set up a blog – Universities in Crisis – which enables academics and students to share their experience of the emerging global crisis for universities. From painful funding cuts in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, to centralized managerialism in Finland and stifling over-regulation in India, universities are facing very difficult times. Most other sectors of society are also having to deal with hard economic times of course. But for sociologists – most of whom work within universities – there is a certain irony in the present gloomy prognosis.

Ever since Daniel Bell proclaimed the emergence of the post-industrial society in the 1960s, sociologists have seen the increasing production of information and knowledge as competing with the production of things as the central focus of the ‘advanced’ societies. Theories of the information society (Webster 2006), the knowledge society (Stehr 1994) and the information age (Castells 2000) have blossomed over the last thirty years and universities have been at their centre. These theories variously claim that digital information technologies are transforming societies; knowledge and its production has become a key resource; citizens are and have to be better educated and thus become more likely to challenge authorities; and that we are in the midst of a social revolution (see, for example, this article by Charles Leadbeater). But if even the ISA tells us that universities across the world are in crisis and the global university sector is contracting, are these theories just plain wrong? In an economic downturn, is a university education set to become yet again a luxury for the few and not a necessity for the many?

Perhaps we need to think seriously about what universities are actually for. Today the idea of the university as an ‘ivory tower’ is a common term of abuse applied to a time when only the children of social elites could afford to attend. Academics were seen as sitting in their ivory towers, insulated from real-world problems, free to speculate and theorize with little, if any, connection to mainstream social life allowing them to produce irrelevant knowledge which they shared mainly with each other. Who would defend that idea of the university? The problem is that we seem to have moved too far in the opposite direction.

Universities have come to be seen as forcing houses for the economy, charged with the task of producing graduates who fit the needs of employers and businesses. League tables include a criterion of ‘percentage of graduates in graduate-type employment within six months’; university courses have become ‘modules’ which pride themselves on their ‘transferable skills’ such as IT competence, presentational skills and report-writing, whilst university research has increasingly to demonstrate policy relevance or direct practical application. Academic CVs are also instructive: ‘I have published more then 50 articles’, ‘I have raised more than a million pounds in external funding for the department’. Has quantity become more important than quality or innovative knowledge? Research assessment processes demand not an attitude of ‘publish and be damned’, but ‘publish regardless of whether you have anything to say’. No wonder academics complain that students are adopting increasingly instrumental attitudes in their choices. Which course gives me the best job prospects? Which ones have work placements that might allow an easier route into a career? But we shouldn’t blame students for adopting personal strategies which are perfectly rational within the existing system. 

Of course the elitist ivory tower cannot be sensibly defended in its old form, but it may still have something to teach us, especially in the current difficult economic times. Academic work demands considered, deep thought and isn’t just a matter of practical research skills and training, important though they are. Academics need a space to work that allows a certain relative (but not absolute) detachment from the cut and thrust of everyday life rather than a total involvement in it. The problems and issues they work on will always come from their experience and interests as members of society, but that doesn’t mean they will or should be directly related to current policy-making. Universities should draw back from becoming mere handmaidens to the needs of business and government and instead should defend academic autonomy both in teaching and research. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake? Now there’s a genuinely radical idea.  

Theories of the information society can be found in chapter 20, especially pp. 894-9 and pp. 914-21. Theories and evidence of recent social change are contained in chapter 3, pp.94-103. On education and the future of universities, see pp. 858-60 and pp. 871-9.

If you’re looking for a short overview and engagement with the different voices and ideas surrounding the information society, from Bell to Castells and beyond, you might also be interested to take a look at The Information Society by Robert Hassan in Polity’s ‘Digital Media and Society’ series.

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Manuel Castells (2009) The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age. Economy, Culture and Society (Cambridge: Wiley-Blackwell).

Frank Webster (2006) Theories of the Information Society, Third Edition (London: Routledge).

Nico Stehr (1994) Knowledge Societies (London: Routledge).

Philip W. Sutton