The Porous University: Opening up the University; Being and becoming critically academically literate? by Gordon Asher

In contexts of an intensifying neoliberalisation of the Higher Education sector, this short verbal provocation proposes accepting Freire’s exhortation to begin with where we are at – to develop critical understandings of our lived contexts and contemporary conjuncture of crises, including of Higher Education.

Gordon Asher
Gordon Asher


That we should (individually and collectively) be engaging in iterative, dialogical processes of being and becoming critically academically literate – so as to enable readings of the academy, its practices and attendant relations.
This speaks to the recognised need to map out the contemporary university and its likely future trajectory, in order to situate ourselves and to provide – for ourselves and others – understandings that facilitate:


  • navigations of the contemporary university;
  • resistances to its ongoing neoliberalisation and neoliberalising tendencies;
  • alternatives to its present and likely future trajectory

The full transcript of Gordon’s provocation can be found below


As such, both drawing on and enabling a framing and orientation of our engagements as working (with all staff and students understood as academic labour) in, against and beyond the neoliberal university.


In doing so we have the opportunity to prefigure and model the democratic values and objectives that we espouse. And through doing so we have the potential to open up the university – both in terms of demystifing its structures and practices, subjectivities and relations, and speaking to notions of its wider public, community, democratic mission.


Questions: The provocation concludes by asking – within a university sector both being neoliberalised and that is neoliberalising of itself, those within it and the wider society it both shapes and is shaped by:

  1. What limitations and obstacles, barriers and restrictions do we face? (and how might we overcome them?)
  2. What opportunities, possibilities and potentialities are, or might be, present?

And central to such questions:

  1. What is/should be the purpose of the university?


Based in Glasgow, Gordon Asher works at the University of the West of Scotland in a role as a Learning and Curriculum Developer. He has worked and studied at University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow, and the University of Strathclyde. Having got a Masters in Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Glasgow his current focus is developing a PhD by publication which he has framed as ‘In, Against and Beyond the Neoliberal University’.


His work examines the connections between critical educational theories and practices within academia with the radical education which takes place outside of the institutional space. He has taught a number of courses and disciplines in Higher and Adult Education including education, social sciences, law, adult education, lifelong learning and learning/educational development. Teaching at an Access to Postgraduate level he has worked as a part of radical social movements, communities and cultural groups and organisations.


He has a range of interests amongst them critical pedagogy, popular education, ecopedagogy, academic literacies/critical literacies/critical academic literacies, critical thinking/reading/writing, social movement education, adult, community and higher education. Actively engaged in many scenes and places he co-edits Variant Magazine and sits as a board member of Strickland Distribution participating in initiatives including ‘Knowledge is Never Neutral’ and ‘History from Below’.

Variant magazine: /

Strickland Distribution:

Further Reading:


Papers by Gordon Asher which are available for download include:


Transcript of Audio

I think it is one of the pleasures of being at a small scale event such as this one that it becomes possible to constructively, firstly, to make some rough assumptions about who is in the group and perhaps some broadly shared beliefs or starting points and thus choose to start our conversations in different places; and secondly to open up our ideas in a more participatory manner through a provocation intended as an invitation to dialogue.


So this is very much in that spirit. Perhaps I am overreaching with the assumptions I am making, and if so let us discuss those in the discussion afterwards. So firstly, those assumptions…. I am thinking perhaps that it is reasonable to assume that we all broadly believe – even if our critiques about the exact what and why may differ – that the contemporary university, and indeed the higher education sector in the UK globally, is in a bad place.


And its present and likely future trajectory looks like we are only in for worse. For many of us that might involve using language such as the neoliberal university, the commodification, corporatisation, marketisation, of higher education; students as consumers etcetera


Increasingly universities are conceived of and run as businesses with CEO’s, corporate strategies, and branding, business plans and partnerships, cost benefit analyses, key performance indicators; and all of us labouring within this set of relations are reified and valorized as ‘human capital’. Degree programs are investment opportunities for students as ‘consumers’, staff are ‘service providers’ and ‘research entrepreneurs’.


Now where our starting points may be broadly shared a spectre perception of what can and needs to be done might vary more broadly and cover a range of positions from a need to reform the university, to the need to revolutionize or transform it, or indeed the need to exodus the university and construct alternative higher educations outwith the institutional formal sector.


So I hope and think that clearly I reflect my own personal beliefs and critiques, what I am saying here today broadly represents something that could be conceived of as a necessary starting point no matter what form we believe our resistances and alternatives to what we are presently facing should be, and whatever different and alternative conceptions, terminologies or theories that one might wish to utilise and draw on.


So, secondly, the provocation… I am just going to paraphrase what I wrote in my proposal and then I’ll unpack it a bit. In context with an intensifying neoliberalisation of the higher education sector I am proposing accepting Paolo Friere’s exhortation: ‘to begin with where we are at’… that it is incumbent on us to develop critical understandings of our lived context and temporary junction of integrated crises.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paolo Friere
Click to Download


In particularly that of where we sit – that of higher education. That we should individually and collectively be engaging with iterative dialogical processes of being and becoming critically, academically literate. So say reading the academy as practices and attendant relations. I am happy if it is of interest, to go into this in more detail later as to this particular choice of terminology, theories and practices which is drawn on – and is intended to contribute to.
Just briefly, I am basically taking the progressive working model from within the field I did work in, of learning development of academic literacies which is conceived of as a direct response to the mainstream deficit model of skills, attributes and employability etcetera that we are all no doubt way too familiar with.


And I am utilising critical literacies work coming out of popular education, theory, practice and praxis of critical pedagogy to attempt to provide a broader reach which has relevance across all disciplines and departments – indeed, all aspects of engagement in and with higher education; and is of relevance to all, students, staff and others engaging with the university.


As well as trying to be more critical, more explicitly political in framing and orientation. This very much picks up on what both Gina and Richard, amongst others, were talking about earlier. I think it is very worthwhile emphasising, we are not just merely victims of neoliberalism; we are all to varying degrees and in a myriad of ways complicit – if not cooperative – in promotional with regard to what Richard has elegantly described as ‘the neoliberal restructuring of universities as competing capitals’.


Through which as Steve Ball and others have illustrated, universities both nationally and globally are actually increasingly integral nodes in neoliberalism’s evolving state corporate nexus. Again I think it is well worth emphasising this point. Universities are not merely being neoliberalised, they are increasingly responsible for neoliberalising themselves, those working within them and those engaging with them as well as wider society.


Also though, as Chomsky points out, while always having been in large part to produce both who and what the dominant powers in society have sought, appreciate that the university is a contested institution, a terrain of struggle and transformative possibilities.


Partial Transcript of Chomsky’s Lecture:


So how on such ever shifting positionalities do we effectively contest and form these networks of power and relations ? I suppose my proposal says by understanding them and our situatedness within them would seem like a reasonable and constructive starting point. And that is roughly what I mean by the terminology which I am choosing to use in being and becoming critically literate.


I am talking about focusing on processes which are building ours and evolving others’ understandings of the past, the present and likely future context and trajectories of higher education. Mapping out the university as a vital constituent aspect of situating ourselves in others and doing so to facilitate not merely just being able to navigate the daily demands and imperatives of the university – and to enable and empower the navigation of others – but to challenge, change or transform both university and the wider society it both shapes and is shaped by.


So as a necessary starting point I need to collectively build understandings of our own institutions and sectors, the drivers and imperatives both internal and externally, and the consequences of these. I am suggesting that the minimum that might be incumbent upon those working in higher education satisfied with its present neoliberal realities is to problematise our specific and immediate context – and to do so democratically.


Evolving, for example, our understandings of the three powers which are clearly going to discipline and control much of what happens in the university over the next umpteen years – the REF (Research Excellence Framework), the NSS (National Student Survey) and the forthcoming TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework).


Things such as institutional governance and the new managerialism – what Lynch describes as ‘the organisational form of neoliberalism’ including this kind of dominant, competitive paradigm of quantitative measurement and metrics.


I think – and its come out earlier – we keep talking about universities as producer of practices and knowledges, and that is important but it is vital that we approach it not merely as dominant practices but with an awareness of the values and desires that they enculture – and the attendant identities, subjectivities and social relations that they shape and reward.


I think this raises another important point in terms of how we choose to go about our engagement, our development of critical academic literacies if that was the language which we are using. In doing so these processes themselves have the potential to contribute to the struggles, but in and through doing so we have the opportunity to reflect, to prefigure or foreshine and model the very democratic values and objectives that we espouse. I think that was something which other people were talking about earlier – openness prefigurations.


And again it is seeing that process as the transformation of identity, subjectivities and social relations – not merely knowledges. I quite like the language used by people in the US under the heading of ‘critical university studies’ who talk about being able to put ourselves in positions in which we are able to ‘teach the university’; that we should learn and teach about what the university was, is and could be – and that we need to be able to teach critically across, and vitally, beyond the university.


If I can indulge in a lengthy quote. Sarah Amsler whose most recent book I can only so thoroughly recommend talks about the fearless and re-politicised university – quote:


“If we are to shape universities as places in which we can actually teach and study, and learn and be, we need to educate ourselves about the politics of higher education, advanced research, labour, intellectual culture, space and time – and we need to do this in a context in which thinking and speaking about the politics of any of these things is regarded as either a waste of time or a threat to economic productivity and institutional reputation…


And, we need to do this in an environment in which many academics by dint of profession or proclivity have either no experience of political participation or activism or no interest in such… And, we need to do all of this in an environment where many academics and some students are exhausted and insecure and are therefore in need of considerable self and collective care. Therefore the doing so involves the capability to liberate time for solidarity actions and activities rather than for exchange”.


I think again, one of the important aspects coming out of what Sarah is foregrounding is that need to connect struggles inside and beyond university; to connect struggles within and over the university to participatory democratic autonomous social movements.


I think in the language which was being used earlier we need to problematise what is wrong with institutions and the institutional per se. We need to move beyond institutions towards interactive and autonomous decisions and action.


From what ways does what I am suggesting concern the open in the educational context which is central to this symposium ? I think the kind of processes I am talking about – themselves open in the sense of collective dialogical exploration and prefigurative speak to the potential to opening up the university both in terms of demystifying its structures and practices, its subjectivities and relations, and in terms of opening both its literal and metaphorical gates in both directions – it’s peoples, spaces and resources to the communities and wider public that, at least, it should be serving.


Again, that connecting of social struggles within and over the university with those outwith the university.


So picking up on those two issues. With regard to that demystification I think of particular relevance is the opening up of what Margolis and others have described as ‘the hidden curriculum’; so opening up the curriculum as the making explicit – and opening to challenge – that which is so often insidiously implicit in the hidden curriculum.

The Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education Margolis
Click to Download


So open here is a response to the hidden curriculum, and more broadly as a challenge to the mainstream realities of the curriculum in higher education as for instance those which I can highly recommend Richard (Hall) and Keith (Smythe) article on ‘Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education’


And with regard to my second point; ‘open’ understood as speaking more broadly to the notion of university’s wider public community democratic mission, to conceptions of education as a public good for a democratic citizenry and society

I did have a set of questions…