In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a pact emerged between universities, governments and expertise and cultural professions that in the twenty-first century is being unwound.
For most of their history universities had provided a narrow classical, liberal or theological education to a cultural and economic male elite. But while many graduates proceeded to the church, the law or the bureaucracy, a university degree was by no means the only way into such employment. Although some universities embraced the new scientific learning as it emerged in the eighteenth century, many were slower to respond. Meanwhile outside the universities, a diverse array of knowledge institutions, including literary and scientific societies, journals, churches, working men’s institutes, medical schools, industry training, teaching colleges, apprenticeship schemes and guilds governed and developed expertise.
With knowledge very much on the move at the end of the nineteenth century, and with industrial technology disrupting old power alignments, the growing middle-classes began to make demands both for education that was relevant and useful as well as cultured and for services that were trustworthy and certified. Professions such as medicine, law, engineering and later dentistry, architecture and teaching were brought into the ambit of universities which provided them with certified training and social status in exchange for large numbers of students (and their fee-income) and a new social and economic role. This breathed new life into universities, giving them a monopoly over the credentialisation of knowledge that (to a greater or lesser extent) they enjoyed for the rest of the twentieth century. Governments supported and sometimes mandated this move, seeing the pact as one that benefited the public by fostering the new professional classes, and by assuring the community that the expertise they were buying was trustworthy.
But this bundling together of knowledge institutions that characterised the twentieth century, is being undone in the early decades of the twenty-first. Once again knowledge is on the move, bringing technological, social and economic changes that renders the old pact passé. Digital technology not only makes information (and expertise) available to many more people at much lower costs, it also offers platforms for forms of trust such as social recommendation, that rival universities’ certification and challenge their authority. In some contexts professional societies, who never lost their formal control over admission, are taking back the work of credentialisation or opening up alternative routes to it. New entities are emerging as trust-markers, and in some sectors experience (such as working for Google or running a start-up) counts for more than a university degree ever could. Meanwhile a host of knowledge-rich industries, from consultancy firms to tech services, news platforms and creative enterprises are selling expertise in a diversified and fast-moving market that works across national borders and distances.
Yet the old institutions are changing too. Museums, libraries and cultural institutions are digitising their collections and through exhibitions and programmes, bringing knowledge to a public hungry for engagement. Universities are styling themselves as engines of ideas and innovation that are crucial to the changing economy. Increasingly they are changing their modes of delivery, reconfiguring their governance and organisation and internationalising their orientation. In a world of increased competition, the cultural capital and known social networks they offer are likely to be more valuable than ever. Moreover, history and its unequal legacy of power relations, is never far away. Wealthy and elite institutions will be able to navigate the changes very differently than their more recent cousins, though perhaps not always according to their own ends.
What we are witnessing, therefore, is perhaps a re-making rather than a total obliteration of institutions of knowledge. Only by understanding the alignment of power, knowledge, work and education that characterised the twentieth century, can we understand the way it is being refashioned in the twenty-first.