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Ron Barnett

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Professor Ron Barnett

Ron is Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education in London and a leading authority on the conceptual understanding of the university. He has published extensively on higher education research, policy and practice and has acted as consultant for most of the leading national bodies in higher education, including the English and Scottish Funding Councils. He currently serves on a number of major education committees and is Chair of the Society for Research in Higher Education. His many books include Realizing the University in an age of supercomplexity (2000) and the prize-winning Beyond all Reason: Living with Ideology in the University (2003). His most recent work is Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education (with Kelly Coate, 2005). His book, A will to Learn: being a student in an age of uncertainty (2007) provides the inspiration for his keynote contribution at the start of the conference.


"My main interests lie in trying to see whether we can seriously understand higher education and ‘the university’ as educational projects in the contemporary age. Especially, in my books, I have tried to show that, while such a project is difficult to sustain, it is not impossible and I have tried to offer resources – in the form of ideas and practical principles – by which it may just be realized to some degree. Both theoretically and practically, we may still yet be able to do some justice to ‘the idea of the university’."



the will to be a professional: how a life-wide curriculum might encourage important features of will

Professor Ron Barnett, Institute of Education, University of London

Ron Barnett revised.ppt


Video Presentation


A pupil about to embark on her or his A levels may, in effect, be viewed as forming a decision about her or his professional occupation, a process that may last for 15-20 years (through 6th form, undergraduate study and initial and subsequent professional formation).  Central to such a trajectory is the formation of a will; we may call it a ‘professional will’, a will to carry one forward into and through a very lengthy and an arduous process of professional formation and professional development.

How might we understand this process of professional will formation?  And how might we construe the challenges of higher education here? 

Will, we may say, is itself a complex, involving (1) both dispositions and qualities oriented towards (2) a cluster of forms of knowing embedded in (3) a set of practices.  On this view, the formation of a professional will is the formation of a habitus.  That formulation is complex enough and sets huge challenges the way of higher education. Which dispositions and qualities?  What is the relationship between dispositions and qualities: does either take precedence over the other?  Which forms of knowing?  Are they largely of substance – of propositional knowledge – or are they of process, and ways of going on in the world?  What is the difference between knowledge and knowing?  And which practices?  Who is to determine the relevant practices?

However, even if we have answers to these questions, still we have not exhausted the matter before us for we must first acknowledge the context of professionalism.  And that specification is no mere technical task; it is itself contested.  A number of readings are possible: professionalism may be construed, for example, through (1) the theme of complexity, in which professionalism is a matter of individuals acquiring self-responsibility adequate to a situation of utter contestability; (2) the theme of competency, in which professionalism becomes that of delivering on pre-set standards; (3) the theme of entrepreneurialism, in which professionalism is that of innovation in growing financially successful practices; (4) the theme of collaboration in which professionalism is seen as a groups communally working out their own conditions, forms and standards of practice.

In short, the very context in which the professional will is to be formed is itself disputable; and is disputed.  Is it, then, possible to say anything of any substance about the process of the formation of the professional will?

A first reflection is that the formation of the professional will is liable to be a matter of bad faith.  For it may be impossible in the pedagogical situation for the teacher to be honest as to the challenges of what it is to be a professional.  To be a professional is to live in hope – of doing things well, of improving life, of doing things that are well though of.  But all these matters are in dispute; and the professional is liable to find him/ herself continually assailed by critique and challenge. 

A second reflection is that there is a conundrum here.  The will to be a professional is to be sustained over time.  It projects itself into the future.  But the future is unknown.  So what is the basis of such a will?  It speaks of a future without a future; without a known future.  So what is the basis of such a will?  Faith? 

In short, the more we reflect on it, the more flimsy the basis of the formation of the professional will.  And yet, without that will to be a professional, the very formation of an individual’s professionalism is in jeopardy.  Can a way forward through these difficulties facing professional education be found?












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