Jeremy Paxman’s recent Newsnight interview of Russell Brand provided a platform for the comedian to wax lyrical about the woes of the current political system. The second half of the interview highlighted Brand’s ability to be a convincing public speaker. After all, it takes an agile mind and flawless delivery to render Paxman at a loss for words.
But what was worrying was Brand’s call for revolution without presenting any suggestion of an alternative system of government. There have been many figures in history capable of stirring an otherwise passive public to rise up against the status quo, but these speeches usually include a proposition for an alternative system of government. To me it feels irresponsible for Brand to call for a revolution without offering a corresponding vision for how things might be different.
What struck me most about the interview, however, were the parallels between Brand’s portrayal of dissatisfaction with democracy and the current debates around the future of higher education. In recent months a significant amount has been written about the viability of the current university model. Topics of concern range from the sustainability of rising fees to the impact of MOOCs and new technologies on student expectations. Anyone new to the higher education sector reading these articles could easily believe that the entire system was on the brink of a revolution.
But what is lacking, in the same way as in Brand’s interview, is a convincing view of an alternative vision of higher education. While few would argue that there is no shortage of innovative ideas, pedagogic models or technologies, there is a surprising lack of debate around what an alternative system of higher education might look like. In much the same way as western democracy, western higher education has been exported across the globe. Despite its flaws, many countries strive to replicate the western university model.
The world needs people like Russell Brand and the thousands of commentators who are able to articulate the faults with our current systems of government and education. But the debate would also benefit from the voice those who are able to present a convincing alternative.