Universities, conflict and the public sphere: trajectories of the public university in Lebanon

Murray, Helen (2021) Universities, conflict and the public sphere: trajectories of the public university in Lebanon. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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Rarely examined through the prism of political theory, the public and private dimensions of universities tend to be defined in economistic terms of ‘who pays’ or ‘who benefits’, overlooking the political meanings of ‘public’ that relate to state-society relations and conditions of democracy. This research explores the question of what makes the university ‘public’ through an extended case study of the national university in Lebanon. Highlighting the significance of the university as both a space and an object of political contestation, it argues that the evolving publicness of the Lebanese University is neither intrinsic nor fixed but an inherently contestable terrain. The research concludes that while state funding may be considered a prerequisite for being public, it is not in itself a guarantee of the university’s publicness beyond that. Moving beyond economistic, instrumental and binary understandings of public and private in higher education, this research shows how the ever-evolving publicness of the university relates to conditions of democracy and the making and unmaking of the university as a public sphere.

Adopting an extended case study approach, this research traces the changing historical trajectories of the Lebanese University as a public sphere over the longue durée, from the expansion of the university in 1959, through the civil war of 1975 to 1990, to the end of data collection in 2019. As the only public university in Lebanon, a context in which the state has been multiply contested, it may be considered a paradigmatic case, enabling analysis of the meaning of public in a political sense, as well as the shifting historical relations between the state and higher education. Through narrative research methods and newspaper archive work, including 52 interviews and a review of over 400 newspaper articles, the research follows the continuous making and unmaking of the Lebanese University as a public sphere and its evolving publicness through the social and political tumults of the last half century.

This history of the Lebanese University is scarcely documented in the literature, despite its epic role over the last half century through periods of social and political transformation, protracted civil war and neoliberal reconstruction. In ‘linking the past to the present in anticipation of the future’ (Burawoy 1998, 5), the research not only contributes to extending a theoretical understanding of the relationship between universities, conflict and the public sphere, it also contributes to excavating aspects of the partially forgotten history of the Lebanese University.

The lack of research on the history of Lebanon’s only public university reflects a wider dearth of empirical research on what happens to universities in societies affected by protracted conflict. Branded a ‘luxury’ in poor and conflict-affected countries, higher education has been largely excluded from the field of education, conflict and peacebuilding. At the same time the emerging literature on universities and the public sphere has predominantly focused on universities located in the Global North, overlooking the longstanding egalitarian and postcolonial critiques of classical public sphere theory that recognise hegemony, inequality and conflict in public spheres.

Overlooked in theory, disregarded in policymaking, and largely ignored in research and practice, the relationship between universities, conflict and the public sphere is particularly illuminated in societies affected by war, but is also relevant to all plural and stratified societies. In moving towards a political rationality in higher education, this research identifies four propositions for conceptualising the publicness of universities relating to difference, autonomy, accountability and domain. In the context of a declining publicness of universities across the globe, the arguments for re-centring the public purposes of the university have relevance for the emerging literature on higher education in contexts of conflict but also point to the wider democratic significance and precarity of the university as a public sphere.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Education and Social Work > Education
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher education
L Education > LG Individual institutions (Asia. Africa. Oceania) > LG021 Asia > LG351 Lebanon
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 26 Aug 2021 12:43
Last Modified: 26 Aug 2021 12:43
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/101309

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