Publish at December 16 2021 Updated January 06 2022

The New Spirit of the University [Thesis].

An institution facing the challenge of the third mission

Reading political, economic and social science theses puts our personal destiny back into the major societal currents that have affected us, in some cases without our knowledge.

We see clearly the context of our existence in its long temporality. And we then grasp, as Epictetus already invited us to do, to hold the things that are our responsibility and leave the things that are not.

Kαὶ τὰ μὲν ἐφ' ἡμῖν
ἐστι φύσει ἐλεύθερα,

And the things of our jurisdiction
are by nature free,
unfettered. [Source.]

Through the prism of a research on the university in French-speaking Belgium, Céline Hoerner's dissertation puts higher education and research back into their new articulations to the world. To the world of knowledge, of work, of business, of public authorities.

In fact, the university today participates in a "new regime of knowledge where scientific questions and those of a political and social order" meet.

"The New Spirit of Capitalism"

One of the theoretical accesses to the thesis is brought with the book by sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (published in 1999, and reissued in 2011).

Already encountered in other works, this analysis of the metamorphoses of capitalism from the 1960s to the 1990s sheds light on the changes in academia across Europe in response to the injunctions of neocapitalism.

In particular, it determines what is great ("state of greatness ") and what are the modalities of expression and justification of this greatness :

"The great one is the one who manages to weave links, multiply connections, maintain constant activity, establish a relationship of trust, insert himself into a new project, into networks, and do so as soon as the current project ends. "

The city by projects

According to these authors, the city by projects is the neoliberal expression of a reticular, flexible world in which each individual or entity is required to produce "valuable" (financially) objects or services with a view to satisfying customers and increasing orders.

The words that mobilize the energy to do in this context are those of quality and excellence, innovation and creativity.

Whether they are more or less precisely explained, they nevertheless determine the axes of monitoring and indicators that are found in dashboards and other steering tools.

A new public management

The public world is also subject to this neoliberal management paradigm shift. From a perspective of self-control, it is being held accountable for the effectiveness of its actions, accessibility and the openness of certain bodies to user-customers.

This control is supported by new actors, often external to the institution, who are experts and advisors. The new reference framework for steering is called the New Public Management (NMP).

The Sorbonne declaration and the Bologna process

In parallel, in the 1990s, European higher education was the subject of declarations and processes (Sorbonne, Bologna, Lisbon) whose aim was to standardize its practices for a better circulation of knowledge and students and greater international competitiveness.

At the same time, the credits allocated to higher education and research were reduced and universities had to position themselves on other modes of financing (calls for tender, funding agencies, partnerships with private companies).

"Higher education is moving from being a common good to being one of many marketable services."

In Belgium

There is a very useful presentation of the Belgian institutional system in the thesis on page 76. Belgium has existed since 1830 and was federalized in 1993.

Since then, each of its bodies - the federal state, the Communities (German, Flemish, French), and the Regions - has a parliament and a government, as well as specific competencies to which funding sectors are attached.

While university education funding is uniform, research funding for the Wallonia-Brussels federation is multi-sourced (in Flanders, the budget is single).

Pillar values

The researcher also explains that Belgian society is structured into pillars that determine specific values. There is the socialist pillar, the liberal pillar and the Catholic pillar.

Each educational network is attached to a pillar. We read this strong structuring in other social fields such as health, trade unions.

Three universities fit into the scope of the thesis:

  • The ULiège, the University of Liège, in a pluralist and neutral dimension, founded 13 years (in 1817) before the creation of Belgium and attached to the state 5 years (in 1835) after it.

It was a matter of "developing scientific progress and [de]rebalancing the world of ideas, at a time when it was dominated by Catholic power."

  • The ULB, the Free University of Brussels, in a dimension originally of free thought, secular, opposed to Catholic dogma, and today of intellectual freedom.

  • The UCL, the Catholic University of Louvain, as its name indicates (although there has been talk of removing this mention), is of Catholic tradition.

The injunctions of the new governance tend to erode these pillar-values in favor of the values proper to management, which are more present in the institutional discourses analyzed in the thesis.

The third mission of the university

The university responds to missions that are traditionally teaching and research. Service to the community represents a third mission of the university.

"We propose to define the third mission of the university as the set of support devices for the university and service devices for society, the latter incorporating economic valorization and societal debate."

The researcher wondered to what extent this third mission existed in and of itself or would be an expression of a dimension of research and teaching.

The third mission is poorly formalized within the university, its contours blurred because it is itself a gateway, a space of porosity, a "border object".

Three Manifestations of Openness to the Public-Citizen

The third mission manifests itself in three types of openness:

  1. Procedures for reporting, assessing the quality of knowledge, and disseminating it.

  2. Knowledge transfer services, KTO in English: knowledge transfer offices, and the valorization of research (opening up to the economic world, financial valorization, commercial valorization, notoriety).

    The valorization of research is, moreover, the subject of a new profession: that of valorizer (Liège and Leuven) also known as scientific advisor (Brussels).
    Valorizers accompany researchers to protect their results, detect valorizable results (by transferring them to an existing company or by creating a company, called spin-off), organize events to promote innovation.
    For example, the company Mithra, a specialized pharmaceutical group, is a "spin-off" of the University of Liege.

  3. Opening up to the general public with the co-construction of knowledge and cross-expertise laboratories, publications and the organization of events. With in Liege the Maison des sciences de l'Homme (MSH) since 2013 and in Brussels the Brussels Studies Institute (BSI).
    This dissertation chronicle is one of the manifestations of the openness to the general public as it can be accessed on ORBI (Open Respository and BIbliography), opened in November 2008 and increasingly populated.

The pattern of university conformation to the dominant discourse

The researcher diagrammed the context, injunctions, and university response in the following:

Dominant Discourse & Context=>Expectations & Constraints for UniversitiesReaction of Universities
Sorbonne DeclarationSeeking Alternative Sources of Funding to Maintain Yourself in a Competitive ContextSo-called Third Mission Services:
Bologna DeclarationResponsibility of Universities (RSU)
1. Scorecards
Neomanagerial ideologySocietal expectations2. Knowledge transfers

Subsisting in a networked society3. Citizen debates

The new model of the liquid university

"We propose to put forward a new model of university: that of the liquid university. This one is constituted as a network, connected, permeable, with blurred boundaries with the outside. A product of society, in permanent reconfiguration, the university is diluted and favors the passage of information."

Once the thesis has been read and the panorama of the world's transformation has been deciphered, it is up to us to know how to swim in our new ocean, knowingly, "free, without impediments, without hindrances ".

Illustration: geralt from Pixabay.

To read:

Celine Hoerner. The new spirit of the university: an institution challenged by the third mission. Political and Social Sciences. University of Liege. 2020.

Thesis available at:

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