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Meet the new ECS Head of School, Dr Liviu Matei

Dr Liviu Matei, Professor of Higher Education and Public Policy, is the new Head of the School of Education, Communication & Society (ECS) at King’s. Here he shares some thoughts on the purpose of higher education and responsibilities of university leaders, as he looks forward to learning more about the School’s unique position as well as the work being done by colleagues, academics and students, and talks about his research on academic freedom.

What inspired you to join King’s School of Education, Communication and Society?

What is really distinctive, promising, and attractive at ECS is that in addition to its strong tradition of excellence in education training and research, the School is part of a faculty that integrates social sciences and public policy. Even within our school, we do social sciences, communication and humanities. This is a rare type of construction for a school – intellectually, administratively, and institutionally.

This combination of education, social sciences, public policy, and humanities is something I’d like to explore as head of the school. At first, of course, I’ll be looking to understand what’s already there and see how to take forward its potential, together with all our colleagues. I am excited about the possibility to explore how to further strengthen this distinguishing characteristic of the School.

Do you already have ideas about how this mix of disciplines can be a strength for the school?

These are only preliminary thoughts because I need to learn a lot more about ECS, which will take a few months. Universities have an obligation to train professionals and scholars but also contribute to educating concerned citizens, at all levels and in all types of programmes; and one cannot educate concerned citizens without the humanities. It's not only for questions of ethics – that’s usually more easily accepted – but also history and epistemology, and more. For example, as both a professional and a citizen it’s important to learn about science, how it progresses, what is scientific truth, how science is influenced by politics and used (sometimes abused) in policy, industry or in everyday life.

This is something that’s done in different ways depending on where you are.

At ECS, we have the chance to study our mix of disciplines and research them individually and in their intersection, to contribute to developing models of analysis and practice, policy recommendations, pedagogic models and so on; we can, at the same time, build our integrated knowledge, centred around education, and act on it.– Liviu Matei, Head of the School of Education, Communication & Society

Besides this, our excellent programmes in teacher training and education are part of a school, faculty and university that care a lot about research. While we train these students for professional careers, and they don’t necessarily expect to become researchers or academics, we also give them the chance to learn in an environment that is permeated by advanced research.

This is very important to me, and I think this research-based teaching and learning is further enhanced by the interdisciplinarity that’s inherent to the School.

Do you already know in which direction you’d like to develop this mix of disciplines further?

There are two generic aspects that I’d like to mention (as I can’t talk about specific directions until I learn more about the School and consult with others): one is about responsibility and the other about capability.

A school like ours has the responsibility to engage with major issues that confront the world of higher education, and the world in general, based on our mandate and capabilities. Access to higher education, for example, interests me a lot. I am aware that universities in the UK tend to talk about “widening participation” instead, which is important, but I think “access” is different, possibly a broader matter.

King’s and ECS have already done more than many universities in this area, yet this is one such potential areas for research and impact where the school is ideally placed: researching the question of access needs indeed to go beyond education, as in pedagogy or curriculum alone, and involve more social sciences and humanities. Some very good work has already been done at ECS, that we can continue and expand.

This leads me onto my second point, that the school holds a unique capacity given its very particular combination of disciplines and approaches. My intention is to start immediately a series of meetings with colleagues in the School to learn better about work being currently done that illustrates this capacity. To go beyond what I’ve learned on the website, I’m thinking to start with group meetings by school unit or centre, before having individual meetings with colleagues. We are a small school, I hope I will have the chance to meet everybody within a few short months.

Universities are about ideas and codified knowledge, but they are also about people, real-life people. I'm a great believer in the need to meet and know everybody that I am working with personally, academics and professional services staff.– Liviu Matei, Head of the School of Education, Communication & Society

(I have already met many colleagues in the School’s professional services; the place where most of them work gives one the feeling of a powerful engine room). If we have breakfast with a colleague every day, once the pandemic is over, in less than half a year I will have met everybody one to one! This will obviously not be an obligation for colleagues. Moreover, I want to be very careful because my main area of research is academic freedom, so I don’t want to come to the School and try to tell people what to do and how to do it. Colleagues have their own research projects and teaching portfolios and I respect that.

Fundamentally, I need to learn what we are doing at ECS, where we are particularly strong, even leaders in the field, what can be strengthened, what can be expanded, as well as perhaps what new things we can do. Thanks to our uniqueness and capacities, we can do better work than others, so I think we have to maximise that: that’s how we can become a pacesetter, nationally and globally, in a few selected areas, where that’s not already the case. This would be one of my main ambitions for the School.

You’ve mentioned meeting with the staff at ECS. Our students are also very active, both from the BAs and at postgraduate level. How are you planning to engage with them?

I believe that the primary function of the university, its main raison-d’être, is students and student learning. If we were only about research, we would be a research institute. And while King’s is a great research university, I think the learning of their students is why professors exist, primarily.

In a university, education, frankly, must come first, along with research and civic engagement.– Liviu Matei, Head of the School of Education, Communication & Society

I am very much looking forward to teaching, myself. I believe in the value of teaching and I am an enthusiastic teacher. An important item on my to-do list is to figure out what I could teach, and when and how soon.

I also believe in the power of an intellectual community in the academe, which is what good schools and universities are. Such intellectual communities include, in equal manner, the academic staff, the administrative staff and the students. I know this is easier said than done, but I’m acutely aware how important it is for the School.

On the other hand, students are not supposed to be passive receptors of what is “given” to them; they can make great contributions themselves, to their own learning, to research, and to governance in higher education. From my previous career as a university administrator, I remember fabulous ideas brought up by students that had a significant, positive impact in the university, which we in the administration would have never thought of.

I am used to having regular meetings with students. I meet PhD students I serve as a supervisor for every week, once one-to-one and once all of us together in an informal seminar; at my former school, as chief academic officer, I held town hall meetings once every semester with PhD and Masters’ students, separately (there were no bachelor students). These meetings can be occasionally tough, but it is always good because one learns from students – as a human being, as an academic, and as a university administrator.

Can you tell us more about your current research on academic freedom?

My starting point was the increasingly authoritarian situation in Central and Eastern Europe, and what is now also happening in Western European countries, and a little bit all around the world: I believe we are in the middle of a crisis of academic freedom.

Although this is a difficult time for academic freedom, we have a rare chance, one that only emerges once in a century, perhaps, to re-think academic freedom, put forward a new conceptual reference for it that is shared, up-to-date, and better adapted to current and newly emerging realities in higher education and societies. The crisis is not only a political, regulatory and legal crisis, it is also a moral and intellectual crisis.– Liviu Matei, Head of the School of Education, Communication & Society

There is a regulatory element, for sure, where academic freedom is being restricted and academics are even being directly repressed, like in Hungary, Turkey or Belarus (to mention European countries); but in the practice of higher education, attacks to academic freedom also happen more insidiously in the “West”, like France or the Netherlands, where academics are being attacked for certain views, from the sphere of politics, but sometimes even from within the university itself.

There is also an intellectual crisis: the current conceptualisation of academic freedom is not adapted to our times, nor is it effective or shared. Research shows that most academics don’t think they know what academic freedom is nowadays, and when they say they do know, there is a lot of confusion about it. For some, it’s a human or fundamental right; for others, a governance principle; and yet for others a fundamental value, for example.

Now, there is a window of opportunity to – I don’t like to use the word redefine – but to reconceptualise academic freedom. Among other elements, it’s important that it should take into account internationalisation; that’s been ignored in so many ways in the existing conceptualisations, which are all based on national principles. After all, our dominant understanding of academic freedom comes largely from what Wilhelm von Humboldt conceptualised at the beginning of the 19th century in connection with the emergence of the modern nation-state.

Academic freedom is a very complex concept and reality or practice, and I would like to make a contribution to this intellectual clarification and re-conceptualisation that I am advocating for. One aspect of that is that, in my view, the international agreements that mention academic freedom (including a strong UNESCO recommendation, a UN Covenant, and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights) are partly outdated, partly not applicable. Indeed, in 2021, a judge of the European Court of Justice had to rule in favour of academic freedom as a commercial matter (the right to establish and deliver commercial services)! Moreover, provisions of these international agreements are often not binding, so their recommendations can be easily ignored. This is obviously a complex matter, but not insurmountable. To illustrate briefly:

Academic freedom as a human right is currently very important in Afghanistan for example, given the extreme actions taken by the new political power against higher education institutions, students and academics. But understood in this way, as a human right, academic freedom cannot be used for internal university affairs in reasonably democratic countries. Here, what is required most often is an understanding of academic freedom as an internal governance principle. Likewise, defining academic freedom as a human right is not that relevant to the discussion about cancel culture, where, for the case of the university, there is a tendency to equate academic freedom with freedom of expression alone, following an American model, which, I believe, is bringing its own set of difficulties.

It might be a long process to reach a new, better adapted, up-to-date, and shared understanding and codification of academic freedom, but I think it is possible and actually, it is already happening.– Liviu Matei, Head of the School of Education, Communication & Society

Over the last 10-15 years, I have been researching (and contributing) to international efforts aiming to put forward a new conceptualisation of academic freedom, in Europe but also in Asian countries and, to a lesser extent, in the US. Since I founded the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom, we also have the chance to work with colleagues from African and Latin American countries.

What are your other research areas of interest?

I mentioned earlier the issue of access; I am also interested in matters of internationalisation and, in this context, decolonising higher education. Also, a few years ago, we wrote with a colleague a practical handbook on quality assurance in higher education for a very specific purpose for Myanmar. The handbook, in which we applied a public policy perspective on quality assurance rather than looking at quality evaluation or assessment of classroom work, became a global reference, beyond the case of Myanmar (which is now lost anyway for the purpose of reforming higher education, after the brutal military takeover of 2021). I now want to rewrite and update it.

I have just submitted for publication an article (the first with my King’s affiliation!), about the emergence of a new form of internationalisation and a new, transnational model of higher education institution. There are international consortia that evolved as university networks, which are now aspiring to become transnational universities (single institutions emerging from the integration of a network) and which don’t depend on one particular state or jurisdiction charter – it’s very new, and I find it fascinating.

Finally, research and policy work is very much about working with others from outside the university. I will therefore rethink my own positioning in various academic and policy networks, now that I’m based in London. This is new for me. In fact, the only time I came to King’s before was when I was invited to give the inaugural lecture at the King’s International Education Research Network, that my predecessor Beatrice Szczepek Reed (a remarkable scholar and School leader) started a few years ago. More recently, I got an invitation to speak at a Chatham House debate on academic freedom on 3rd March, so this is a good beginning!

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Liviu Matei

Liviu Matei

Professor of Higher Education and Public Policy

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