Professor Ronald Barnett

About Ronald Barnett

Professor Ronald Barnett

Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at University College London Institute of Education (where he was both Dean of Professional Development and (subsequently) Pro-Director for Longer Term Strategy). He is the inaugural President of the Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education Society.

In his academic work, he has been leading the development of a new sub-field, the philosophy of higher education. His work lies at the conjunction of philosophy (especially epistemology and ontology), social theory, critical theory, the idea of the university, ecology studies, pedagogical theory and the idea of the student, organisational theory and the university as an organisation, history of higher education, comparative higher education, state theory, and higher education policy.  Currently, he is working on culture and the university.

Two sets of questions have gripped him throughout his life: (1) What is, what might be, a university?  (2) What is, what might be, a student?  Ronald Barnett, therefore, has distinguished the two matters - the idea of the university and the idea of higher education (whereas much of the literature tends to treat the terms ‘university’ and ‘higher education’ as synonyms) - while also looking to the interconnections between these two matters.

Ronald Barnet has characterised his position as that of a social philosophy of the university, at once realist, critical, imaginative, and practical, in which he has been attempting to identify concepts and principles that offer ways of enhancing universities and higher education in an uncertain age. The theme of utopia has been a core concept: in what senses might it be helpful to incorporate a utopian element into thinking about the university and higher education, so as to equip each better for the twenty-first century?

His (35+) books include The Idea of Higher Education (1990), The Limits of Competence (1994), Realizing the University in an age of supercomplexity (2000), and A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty (2007). He has written a trilogy of books on understanding the university: Being a University (2011), Imagining the University (2013) and Understanding the University: Institution, Idea, Possibilities (2016).

His latest sole-authored book is The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia (2018), which perhaps stands as the culmination of his life-long enterprise.  Recently published (with SØren Bengtsen) is Knowledge and the University: Re-claiming Life (Routledge, 2019) - see under Books for fuller description. In press (Routledge, 120,000 words) is 'The Philosophy of Higher Education: Issues, Debates, Proposals' (being at once an account of the whole field of the philosophy of higher education, a stretching of the field into new territories and an advocacy of a particular way of engaging with the field).

Ronald Barnett’s books have been translated into several languages and several have won prizes, including his very first book. He is also the author of over 180 papers and well over another one hundred and fifty articles and other pieces of writing.

Professor Ronald Barnett Ronald Barnett is the inaugural recipient of the EAIR Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Higher Education Research, Policy and Practice’ and has had an (earned) higher doctorate of the University of London conferred upon him.  He holds Fellowships of the Academy of the Social Sciences, the Society for Research into Higher Education and the Higher Education Academy.

Ronald Barnett has been a visiting professor in China and Australia as well as a number of UK universities, and is currently a visiting professor at Winchester University. He has been a Special Adviser to the UK’s Select Committee Inquiry into Universities and Students and an invited speaker in around 40 countries.

Ronald Barnett has chaired several major committees, including acting as Chair of Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education and the Research Degrees Committee of the University of London (working across all of its colleges and all of its disciplines).

Ronald Barnett also acts as a consultant and has worked with most of the major national bodies in UK higher education, and many universities including several in other countries. He is currently working in different ways with St Mary’s University, Twickenham.