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Opening Keynote

“Learning Together and the Politics of Knowledge: Mis- and Disconnections in Europe and Beyond”

Voldemar Tomusk
Voldemar Tomusk
Director for Policy and Evaluation
Higher Education Support Program
Open Society Institute

Suggesting that learning is no simple matter sounds less than trivial. Rare indeed are the individuals who in our days have the courage to demonstrate their lack of understanding to the extent that they would openly argue that learning is a simple matter. This, however, does not prevent many, including policy makers and academic policy analysts behaving contrary to that view, reducing learning in their proposed policies and actions implicitly to something considerably less than is should be. Economic development is the most common agenda to which learning is being reduced, but achieving social mobility or just protecting the interests of certain political or professional groups also find their places among the agendas that limit our appreciation of the full value of learning – as the ultimate determinant of our existence. Recent developments in European higher education policy offer many interesting examples to be discussed here. The threat some of the expressed positions present count for nothing short of reducing humans to something less than we are – for example to machines of production or consumption. I emphatically argue that it is the highest imperative not to allow closing the discourse of learning at the point of producing material goods.

To allow keeping the discourse of learning open some conceptual work is to be done. My own point here would be to argue that both teaching and research are to be seen as learning. While I do understand perfectly well that this contradicts with the interests of many academic colleagues who fight for the access to research resources as a right the academic profession naturally entails, I also believe that the small victory such a struggle might bring eventually threatens something so much more important.

My view on learning comes from the understanding cognitive psychology offers to the effect that there is no evolutionary reason for humans to be as intelligent as they are. Fundamentally, what makes us human is something extra, something which our survival as biological organisms does not require. It is no secret that our intelligence makes ourselves the greatest threat we have. With this extra capacity we learn – we create, maintain and share the world. Learning, as I see it, is active – it is about constructing the world out what we and the others have found out there, sharing that world and handing it over to the next generation. It matters little here whether by doing so we are labeled students, professors, administrators or something else. The moral commitment of learning reaches well beyond any such limitations. Learning seen in such a manner is democratic. This democracy, however, stands in a tension with the politics of this world as well as the hierarchies of the academic profession. Coming back to my starting point – the imperative of our irreducible humanity constitutes the primary reason why I think that we should make an extra effort keeping the discourse of learning open. Because if we do not do that we volunteer for a slavery or worse. It matters little that we are being taken hostage first and foremost by our own thoughts.

Voldemar Tomusk is the Director for Policy and Evaluation of Open Society Institute's Higher Education Support Program (HESP), based in London, UK. He holds a doctoral degree in Social Sciences in Sociology of Education from the University of Turku, Finland and a postgraduate certificate in European Studies from the Central European University, Prague. Prior to joining Open Society Foundation in 1995 he served as head of the Higher Education Division and acting director of Higher Education and Research in the Estonian Ministry of Education. He has also taught physics and psychology at the Tallinn Pedagogical Institute. He is the author of a few dozen papers on higher education and higher education reforms. His recent works include a book, The Open World and Closed Societies: Essays on Higher Education Policies "in Transition" (2004), and an edited volume, Creating the European Area of Higher Education: Voices from the Periphery (2006). He lives in Mitcham, Surrey in England with his wife Anu, five children, guinea pig Volli and a blue Honda motorbike, a.k.a. The Bird.

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