António Teodoro: Citizen University

Drawing by Oliveira Hugo

A Citizen University in the 21st Century: Designing Possible Futures


António Teodoro

Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias, Lisbon, Portugal


The future is a collective construction which takes into consideration the past and the present, but which also takes into account our aspirations, or our “viable unknowns”, to use the phrase coined by Paulo Freire. The approach to a radically democratic and citizen higher education gives rise to some important challenges in education policies and in university practices, which are briefly presented below.

Considering higher education as a public good for the construction of a fairer society. As prerequisite to the debate on the model of society and the relevance of higher education as social justice, it is upheld that this be considered a public good at the service of society and a right for all, a social good that explicitly seeks to educate free, autonomous and independent citizens, capable of making political, economic and social decisions aiming for a better and fairer development of society. The debate on this issue is not trivial, since if higher education is considered a service that is performed under a market rationale, the responsibilities that States and public powers must respond to will be different. As public good, higher education must be permanently subject to public scrutiny and citizen participation, so as to be able to respond to its economic, social, scientific and cultural purposes. To build a participative, inclusive, perfecting and renewing type of management, capable of responding both to local requirements and the global challenges of knowledge is a crucial challenge for universities in the 21st century.

Thinking universities and higher education outside the rationality imposed by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism was not just an economic doctrine. It is a whole new rationality based on the idea that the market is omniscient and that competition is the only human action generating innovation and progress; on this assumption, this new rationality has penetrated deeply in universities and in higher education policies. Locating the assumptions and consequences of this rationality and building other rationalities constitutes one of the missions of thinkers, scholars and political agents invested in overcoming one of the most dangerous periods in mankind’s recent history.

Building the relevance of higher education based on social justice. Considering education as a public good, social justice becomes an ethical, political and legal imperative, which is implemented first and foremost in the field of social and educational policies and in the ethics of relations and is directly linked with the social relevance of higher education and the adequacy of its functions. The reflection on this concept related with distribution, recognition and representation leads to the need to redefine its meaning, assigning it a dimension that lays the emphasis on development and social emancipation. The traditional vision, that quality in higher education depends on its relevance, must include, as relevant, the debate on its contribution to social justice, in its more radical view, which articulates the distributive view with recognition and cognitive justice.

Relevance of knowledge and empowerment. The definition of what is relevant knowledge is related to how this is understood: a public good or a competitive advantage? A personal shared construction or a commodity acquired through the purchase of a service? There is a vast bibliography, especially from international organizations such as the OECD or the World Bank, progressively transformed into think tanks, which build the new rationalities later transformed into common sense on the role of universities in the “knowledge economy”. Alternatively, we propose the development of the ability to think the university as a community of practices, open to change and innovation, capable of including and allowing empowerment, or awareness (conscientização), if we favour Freire’s concept, of a growing number of youth and adults who, without discrimination of gender, class or ethnicity, seeks and accesses university education. Little by little, the university has stopped being a space for “the chosen ones”, where through violent meritocratic selection, the most violent and effective forms of reproduction of inequalities and symbolic violence, as Pierre Bourdieu so clearly showed us, hid (and continue to hide). The recognition of the importance of knowledge and the role of HEIs in its generation and socialization is an imperative of present times.

Revising the governance modes in universities. In the last decades we have witnessed in many countries profound changes in the governance modes of universities, taking as model and bringing it closer to business management modes. As a direct consequence of the application of new public management theories, the modes of collective participation (of professors, researchers, students) in the definition of scientific and training policies were considered to be ineffective and replaced by the concept and influence of stakeholders, by definition external to the university. Deans were then chosen like CEOs of companies and acted according to their standards of efficiency. In other countries, these changes were not implemented and the governance of universities went on being done according to the ancient modes of corporate domination, based on the decisive influence of professors and the student body organized in parties. The challenge presented is to think a citizen university. Is there an alternative to this dilemma: either a university based on the corporate weight of its teaching staff and student body (those that are in), or a company-university, where the dominating criteria are those of efficiency and efficacy measured by its economic outputs?

How to combine competition and cooperation? The main regulation mode for the policies in these times of neoliberal competition is done, above all, by international (and national) comparisons established from large statistical studies. These are tests similar to PISA (its extension to higher education has been announced to happen in the near future), rankings of universities, schools, states and countries, “academic productivism”. Quality and excellence, on the individual and institutional levels, have (almost) always been regarded as the result of competition systems and rarely (or never) of cooperation. Excellence is, in general, considered to be the opposite of massification. The question that needs asking is this: Is academic excellence possible in a mass-based, universal and radically democratic (higher) education?

The regulation modes of higher education, and the role of the State, the market and the community. Recent trends indicate a withdrawal (sometimes apparent) of the State, assigning regulation to accreditation and assessment agencies presented as “independent”, and to a presence, which is sometimes overwhelming, of the market in the regulation in public policies. Is it possible to have modes where the three regulation pillars (State, market, community) are in balance, particularly highlighting the community pillar, all but absent from the dominating regulation modes?

The internationalization of universities. In present times, it is the world class universities that act as hegemonic models of organization and of training. This being a little debated issue, it is important to analyse the consequences of the affirmation and dissemination of teaching and research models, especially to countries in the periphery or semi-periphery of the world system. The internationalization of the university activity must be seen as the university’s response to knowledge without borders. To this end, it is stated that the organization of research networks and the mobility of teachers and students constitute the best response to the challenges and impacts of mundialization, restoring the possibility of a gnoseologic democracy and assuming cosmopolitism as a natural vocation and part of the university ethos.

Knowledge types and the dialogue between epistemologies. Scientific knowledge is not the only way of knowing. The radical divide between valid knowledge – science – and other types of knowledge, reduced to local, traditional, indigenous experiences, attributes to the former the universal monopoly in telling true from false, which has led to deep contradictions at the centre of the contemporary epistemic debates. The challenge faced is that of converting universities into cosmopolitan centres capable of building bridges between different cultures and types of knowledge in a process of epistemological decolonization.


We are living times of transition and times of fighting, of crossroads. In many ways, these times appear to be chaotic, but from them a “new order” will most likely arise. As stated by the American social scientist I. Wallerstein, talking about the structures of knowledge, a statement which can nevertheless be extended to all the forms of human action, that order is not determined but determinable: “we can only have fortuna if we seize it” (Wallerstein, 2003: 123).

The set of analyses and proposals presented are part of that purpose of acting by “a new order”, an order that has in education for all a tool of cohesion and social justice. And, since there cannot be social justice without cognitive justice, higher education plays a privileged role in this historic process of building fairer and more humane societies, “rounder and less edgy” societies, as Paulo Freire liked to put it.


Wallerstein, I. (2003). As estruturas do conhecimento ou quantas formas temos nós de conhecer? In: B. S. Santos (ed.) Conhecimento prudente para uma vida decente. “Um discurso sobre as Ciências” revisitado. Porto: Afrontamento, pp. 117-123.



TEODORO_AntonioAntónio Teodoro is Visiting Professor at UNINOVE, S. Paulo, and Full Professor of Comparative Education and Sociology of Education of Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias, Lisbon. Director and scientific coordinator of CeiED (Interdisciplinary Centre for Education and Development). – Vice-President for Europe, ISA Research Committee Sociology of Education (2006-2014). Scientific coordinator of the Iberia-American Network of Research in Education Policies (RIAIPE), leading the Inter University Framework Program for Equity and Social Cohesion Policies in Higher Education in Latin America, funded by EC Alfa III Program (2011-2013). – Founder of free trade unionism in Portugal after the Portuguese Revolution in April 1974 and first general-secretary of FENPROF (1993-2004). Chief Inspector of Primary Education (1974-1975), member of National Council of Education (1988-1994), and Special Advisor of Portuguese Prime Minister for Education, Science, Culture and Employment (1995-1999). Expert invited to the Eurydice study The Teaching Profession in Europe: Profile, trends and concerns (2000-2002), member of Scientific Council of dozen of academic journals in Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, France, and US, and Director of Revista Lusófona de Educação.



Banner Image: Drawing by Hugo Oliveira, published here by courtesy of the artist.



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