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Abstract

Governments worldwide rightly regard universities as fundamental to the achievement of many national priorities. But it is the paper's contention that many misunderstand their true benefit to society. Investments in universities are increasingly based on the belief that the science labs in particular of research-intensive universities can be the source of a continuous stream of people and ideas that will spawn innovative and fast growing companies to form the nexus of the knowledge-based economy. This belief is a source of misconceived policies that offer only ultimate disillusion. It is the totality of the university enterprise that is important, as the only place where that totality of ourselves and our world is brought together, and which makes it the strongest provider of the rational explanation and meaning that societies need. In research, universities create new possibilities; in teaching, they shape new people. Its graduates learn to seek the true meaning of things: to distinguish between the true and the merely seemingly true, to verify for themselves what is stable in that very unstable compound that often passes for knowledge. It is the complex, interacting whole of the university that is the source of the separate economic, social, cultural and utilitarian benefits valued by society. It needs to be understood, valued and managed as a whole. These perceptions are a direct challenge to not only to governments but to university administrators who have been either cowed or seduced into the slipshod thinking that is leading to demands that universities cannot satisfy, whilst obscuring their most important contributions. The challenge to both is to permit autonomy without oppressive accountability, and to give staff and students the freedom to think, speculate and research. These are the very conditions of the personal and collective creativity that are the sources of a university's deepest benefits to its society.
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What are universities for?
Geoffrey Boulton and Colin Lucas
July 2008
LERU was founded in 2002 as an association of research-intensive universities sharing the
values of high-quality teaching in an environment of internationally competitive research.
The League is committed to: education through an awareness of the frontiers of human
understanding; the creation of new knowledge through basic research, which is the ulti-
mate source of innovation in society; the promotion of research across a broad front, which
creates a unique capacity to reconfigure activities in response to new opportunities and
problems. The purpose of the League is to advocate these values, to influence policy in
Europe and to develop best practice through mutual exchange of experience.
Geoffrey Boulton FRS, FRSE, is Vice Principal and Regius Professor of Geology and Mineralogy in
the University of Edinbur
gh.
Sir Colin Lucas is W
arden of Rhodes House and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
THE IDEA OF THE UNIVERSITY
1.
A University is a place … whither students come from
every quarter for every kind of knowledge; … a place
for the communication and circulation of thought, by
means of personal intercourse. …It is the place to
which a thousand schools make contributions; in
which the intellect may safely range and speculate. It
is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, .. discov-
eries verified and perfected, and .. error exposed, by
the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with
knowledge. … Mutual education, in a large sense of
the word, is one of the great and incessant occupa-
tions of human society. .. One generation forms another.
… We must consult the living man and listen to his liv-
ing voice, ..by familiar intercourse..to adjust together
the claims and relations of their respective subjects of
investigation. Thus is created a pure and clear atmos-
phere of thought, which the student also breathes.
So wrote John Henry Newman in
The Idea of a
University
in 1852.
1
2.
Some 40 years earlier, in 1810, Wilhelm von Humboldt
wrote a memorandum
2
that led to the creation of the
University of Berlin. He envisaged a university based on
three principles: unity of research and teaching, freedom
of teaching and academic self-governance. The first
was critical both of research divorced from teaching,
undertaken by private scholars or in separate research
institutes, without the stimulation of sharing those inves-
tigations with young minds, and of higher education
divorced from original enquiry. The second,
Freiheit der
Lehre und des Lernens
, was that professors should be
free to teach in accordance with their studiously and
rationally based convictions. The thir
d principle, of aca-
demic self-government, only implicit in
Humboldt’s memo but increasingly
appar
ent as an integral component of
his vision, was meant to protect aca-
demic work from the distortions of gov-
er
nment control.
3.
The perceptions of Newman and Humboldt have dom-
inated western thinking about the functions of universi-
ties. They are represented to different extents and in
different ways in the objectives and structures of the
comprehensive, research universities of Europe. They
are sometimes considered to be antithetical, implying
that the ethos of specialised research is in tension with
the liberal education of an informed and critical citizen.
That may simply be a reflection of the openness to con-
tradiction that is part of the genius of the university. For
our part, we see them as complementary and the west-
ern comprehensive university to be in many ways the
fusion of the two. Thus, Newman’s “discoveries verified
and perfected and error exposed by the collision of
mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge” is a
powerful basis for Humboldt’s search for new knowl-
edge through research. Equally, to consult “the living
man and listen to his living voice” emphasises the
vir
tue of tuition by r
esearchers who, with first-hand
rather than second-hand knowledge, are best able to
penetrate with their students the complex tangle in
which true knowledge often lies.
THE SUCCESS OF THE WESTERN UNI-
VERSITY MODEL
4.
The “western” university based on Newman’s and
Humboldt’s principles has been remarkably success-
ful. It has provided an almost universal model for high-
er education. The highly interactive social setting and
operational freedom of such universities has stimulat-
ed a cr
eativity that has made them one of the great
entrepreneurial centres of the
modern world. They are one of
the fundamental agents that
have made that world possible.
Their capacities have been such
that not only has their historical
3
Doctoral studies in Europe: excellence in researcher training
What are universities for?
1 Newman, J.H. The idea of the University. Notre Dame University Press. 1852.
2
Humboldt, W. von. Über die innere und aeussere Organisation der hoeheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten in Berlin. (1810). In Leitzmann et al., eds.,
W
ilhelm von Humboldts Gesammelte Schriften. Band X. Berlin 1903–35.
The “western” university
has provided an almost
universal model.
u
s; and it is also partly the preparation of what we do
not yet know to be useful knowledge.
7
.
T
here is no doubt that universities have been remark-
ably successful in this, as is shown by the degree to
which contemporary governments and societies pay
t
hem so much attention. Nonetheless, as we shall
argue, the conditions of that success are quite specif-
ic. Indeed, whatever attention must necessarily be
given to corporate effectiveness, universities are not
enterprises with a defined product with standardised
processes required for its cost-effective production.
Universities generate a wide diversity of outputs. In
research, they create new possibilities; in teaching,
they shape new people. The two interact powerfully to
generate emergent capacities that are adapted to the
needs of the times, embodying and creating the
potential for progress through the ideas and the peo-
ple that will both respond to and shape an as yet
unknown future.
8.
It is important to remember that whatever policy-driv-
en demands are placed on universities and whatever
the desire to mandate particular outcomes, the space
of university endeavour is essentially one where dis-
coveries cannot be determined in advance and where
the consequences of the encounter between minds,
between a mind, a problem and evidence, and
between the minds of successive different genera-
tions are profoundly and marvellously unpredictable.
They are the very conditions of creativity.
A CHANGING WORLD
9.
These enduring elements of success explain why, in
the world of globalisation, universities are now regard-
ed as crucial national assets. Governments worldwide
see them as vital sources of new knowledge and inno-
vative thinking, as providers of skilled personnel and
cr
edible credentials, as contributors to innovation, as
attractors of international talent and business invest-
ment into a region, as agents of social justice and
mobility
, and as contributors to social and cultural
vitality.
10.
It is not surprising ther
efore that universities have
c
ommitment to education and scholarship flourished
and deepened, but they have absorbed in the last 40
years a massive increase in student numbers. They
h
ave been widely emulated, and arguably are sources
of radical thought and social progress in societies
where they have been introduced. In many countries
t
hey have also become the principal locations for the
national research base, and have led the way in devel-
oping the cross-disciplinary concepts that are increas-
ingly vital if we are to address many of the complex
challenges to national and global societies.
5.
Indeed, this flexibility and adaptability have become
the hallmarks of universities. They are testimony both
to a dynamic process of engagement in the pursuit
and explanation of knowledge and to a sensitivity to
the needs of the contemporary world and to the prob-
lems that preoccupy it. Universities operate on a com-
plex set of mutually sustaining fronts – they research
into the most theoretical and intractable uncertainties
of knowledge and yet also seek the practical applica-
tion of discovery; they test, reinvigorate and carry for-
ward the inherited knowledge of earlier generations;
they seek to establish sound principles of reasoning
and action which they teach to generations of stu-
dents. Thus, universities operate on both the short
and the long horizon. On the one hand, they train stu
-
dents to go out into the world
with both general and specific
skills necessary to the well-
being of society; they work
with contemporary problems
and they render appropriate
the discoveries and under-
standing that they generate.
On the other hand, they forage
in realms of abstraction and domains of enquiry that
may not appear immediately relevant to others, but
have the proven potential to yield great future benefit.
6.
If we may bor
row a phrase from the founders of the
American Philosophical Society
3
, universities are con-
cerned to create and transmit “useful knowledge”.
Inescapably
, the definition of useful knowledge is rel-
ative: it is partly what is practically useful; it is partly
what serves the broadest purpose of rendering the
human condition and the world we live in coher
ent to
4
3 The American Philosophical Society was set up in 1743 as the “American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for the promotion of
useful knowledge”.
In research,
universities create
new possibilities; in
teaching, they shape
new people.
a
te gratification of the marketplace.
13.
Indeed, what is striking is that the realisation of the
i
mportance of universities in the context of globalisa-
tion has brought governments of most of the major
economies (other than the USA where other mecha-
n
isms operate
7
)
to seek to regulate and stimulate uni-
versities in order to make them instruments of social
and economic public policy. Broadly speaking, public
policy sees universities as vectors of the contempo-
rary skilling of an increasing segment of the popula-
tion and as providers of innovation that can be trans-
lated into advantage in a fast changing global eco-
nomic environment. This involves the use of regulation
and incentives (especially financial) to obtain forms of
behaviour in universities that provide outcomes
defined as desirable within this short-term frame of
reference.
14.
Public policy implies the engagement of universities in
the contemporary concerns and objectives of their
societies. We recognise that as both necessary and
welcome. Public policy acknowledges the potential
for the creativity of universities to benefit the econo-
my. We recognise the validity of that premise.
However, the contention of this paper is that such
public policy needs to be moderated by a better
understanding of the broad function of universities.
We believe that the general attitudes that underlie
such government policies are based on some serious
misunderstandings. It is crucial that the true role of
universities in modern societies and
the relationships between means and
ends are understood before mecha-
nisms to promote change are put in
place. Indeed, there is a danger that the
current approach to universities is
undermining the very processes that
are the source of those benefits so
cherished by government. It may
4 Delivering on the modernisation agenda for universities: education, research and innovation. European Commission. COM (2006) 208.
5 Facing the challenge: the Lisbon strategy for gr
owth and employment. Report from the High Level Group chaired by Wim Kok. European Commission.
November 2004.
6 The European Research Area: new perspectives. European Commission. COM (2007) 161.
7 Duderstadt, J. J. “In the U.S., focused ef
forts by federal or state governments to utilize higher education to address particular near term priorities are
less influential. While the cacophony of demands from the highly diverse stakeholders attempting to influence American higher education can be a
headache for university leaders and governing boards, there is a moderating effect on the dominance of any particular agenda from the diversity of
funding sources. Furthermore, the intensely competitive higher education marketplace in the U.S. in which faculty, students, and resources move eas-
ily from one institution to another has a self-correcting effect. If some institutions lose their way and become too focused on an agenda too far removed
fr
om their cor
e academic competence, they will quickly lose faculty
, students, and eventually r
eputation”. Personal communication. April 2008.
m
oved from the periphery to the centre of government
agendas. Governments around the world have invest-
ed heavily in universities and made demands upon
t
hem about objectives and even the processes used
to attain them. The European Union serves as an
example: it has promoted a “modernisation agenda”
f
or university reform “as a core condition for the suc-
cess of the broader Lisbon Strategy
4
to make the
European Union “the most dynamic and competitive
knowledge-based economy in the world”
5
. The
European Commission has defined the role of univer-
sities as to exploit the so-called “knowledge triangle
of research, education and innovation”
6
, and has set
about creating its own university, the European
Institute of Innovation and Technology, to demon-
strate how these objectives should be addressed.
11.
Thus, over the last decade or so there has been firmly
established among governments around the world the
view that high quality, internationally competitive
research and higher education, mostly contained with-
in universities, are prerequisites for long-term success
in globalised knowledge economies. These are percep-
tions that drive the policy debate in Europe and else-
where about how university systems can affordably
embrace both research universities capable of vying
with the world’
s best, and pr
ovide higher education for
a large proportion of the rising generation.
12.
This policy preoccupation with the immediate chal-
lenges of a world in transition has led to a growing ten-
dency to see universities as sources of
highly specific benefits. This means in
particular that they are (or should be)
sources of marketable commodities for
their customers, be they students,
business or the state. There are injunc-
tions to redesign/repackage and sell
their products in response to shifting
consumer priorities and to the immedi-
5
What are universities for?
There is a growing
tendency to see
universities as
sources of highly
specific, marketable
commodities.
s
taunch the universities’ capacities to look beyond
today’s concerns in order to prepare the thoughts and
the ideas that the future will need. Ultimately, they would
b
e left as universities only in name.
THE NEW DISCOURSE: THE PRIMACY
OF DIRECT ECONOMIC BENEFIT
15.
Increasingly, discussions of the organisation of
research and indeed of the university system across
Europe have become dominated by analyses of the
ways in which they can best fulfil an immediate eco-
nomic function
8
. But we should pause to consider
whether both the end and the means to achieve it
have been correctly identified.
16.
The statements of government ministers, officials,
funding agencies and research councils have in the
last decade or so generally developed the following
themes:
that the function of universities is to provide direct
in-out benefits for society’s economic prosperity;
that there is a direct relationship between university
applied research and economic prosperity through
the medium of scientific and technical innovation
spr
eading into the economy;
that there is a high correlation between prosperity,
social contentment and university research in sci-
ence and technology;
and, by implication, that universities have a primary
duty to engage in this socially useful activity in
exchange for taxpayers’ support, and that research
should only be supported if it is in the immediate
national interest.
The Chief Scientist of Australia recently epitomised
such a view in his essay
The Chance to Change
9
where he wrote of “the potential of universities to play
a central role as dynamos of growth in the innovation
process and be huge generators of wealth creation”.
1
7.
O
ne direct consequence of these perceptions has
been the enormously increased investment in univer-
sity science research by many governments in recent
d
ecades. From the point of view of universities, this
investment has indeed allowed a great upsurge in both
the volume and the quality of science research. It is
i
mportant for us to recognise here the substantial
progress that has occurred in this domain. Moreover, in
many universities there have been determined and
effective developments in the application of new tech-
nologies derived from science research. There can be
no doubt that large state investment has triggered insti-
tutional and individual creativity and the pursuit of more
ambitious objectives.
18.
Nonetheless, we argue that these outcomes are the
by-products of a policy constructed on flawed prem-
ises. Many governments have adopted a simplistic
reductionism in their perception of the connection
between universities and globalisation. Globalisation
is certainly the child of the breathtaking scientific and
technological advances that have created the devel-
opments in communication whose rapidity and uni-
versality have astonished the vast majority of people
who do not understand the technology. Whether glob-
alisation is the creation of this technology or simply
another version of the globalising tendency of nine
-
teenth-century imperialisms hardly matters. What pol-
icy makers have seen is the power of technological
innovation and the threat of world economic reorder-
ing that it poses. They have made a cursory connec-
tion between technology and science and then
between science and the obvious place where public
money is spent on it – universities. It is on this basis
that policies of investing in university science with a
particularly public benefit in view have emerged.
19.
To our minds, all this has a curiously contradictory
character of a post-Cold War revision of the signifi-
cance of universities coupled with a dose of national-
ism. Universities – and mor
e especially research-led
universities – flourished in the Cold War as both sides
sought both technological superiority and the demon-
stration that their values pr
oduced happier and more
creative societies. After a period of growing indiffer-
ence to universities as European communism failed in
the 1980s, globalisation pr
oduced a new need for
6
8 Globalisation of R&D: linking better the European economy to foreign sources of knowledge and making EU a more attractive place for R&D invest-
ment. Report from the Expert Group on Knowledge for Growth, D.Foray (rapporteur). European Commission. 2007.
9 Batter
ham, R. The Chance to Change. Canber
ra. 2000.
It is crucial that the true role of
universities is understood before
mechanisms to promote change
are put in place.
Competitiveness, research and the concept of a European Institute of Technology
t
echnological superiority and for the evidence of hap-
pier and more creative societies. The difference is that
globalisation has produced anxiety about the per-
f
ormance of national economies (as distinct from
international ideological systems) and happiness or
quality of life is now classified by governments as
e
ssentially the product of economic success.
20.
Indeed, it is a striking illustration of this point that the
metaphor of global competition that reflects business
rivalries in liberalised markets has inspired the rheto-
ric of crisis that colours many appraisals of the per-
formance of Europe’s universities. As league table fol-
lows league table, they are pored over obsessively for
signs of progress or decline.
THE SEARCH FOR FUNCTION AND
PURPOSE
21.
Of course, one can see why universities and agencies
that connect with them have moulded themselves to
this vision of socially and economically relevant
national objectives. On the one hand, the high level of
funding for university science research is irresistible.
This is not a base motive in the way that some high-
minded colleagues would have us believe.
Universities need money, as do scientists in pursuit of
ever more challenging research
objectives and ever more expensive
means to pursue them. No universi-
ty operates well in indigence. On
the other hand, universities are, and
have always been, products of their
society, whatever the persistence of
an academic discourse of intellec-
tual virginity. Universities are socially responsible and
seek to improve the common good. Their perceptions
and priorities change as those of their society change
around them. Universities reconcile a transcendent
mission of establishing understanding of the tr
ue
nature of things with a social mission of relevance to
their ambient population. This is not an easy task.
What is attractive about cur
rent public policy for uni-
versities is that it does appeal to universities’ desire
for relevance in their mission.
22.
Nonetheless, the contention of this paper is that the
current emphasis of public policy about universities in
Europe and elsewhere is far from capturing the essen-
t
ial reality of their func-
tion in society. Research
universities in particular
m
ust be wary of simply
accepting the premises
of that policy as a whole
t
ruth. They must have a
clear sense of their own about what they stand for and
what their purpose is. They should not be rushed by a
combination of inducements, urgency and regulation
into accepting an identity proffered them from their
ambient world, but they must engage with it to define a
commonly accepted purpose. Even accepting the
European Commission’s knowledge triangle of educa-
tion – research – innovation, universities need to pro-
vide their own answers to the questions: What sort of
education? What sort of research? And how do univer-
sities contribute to innovation, previously believed to be
the exclusive domain of private industry?
23.
The phrase “useful knowledge” tends to imply the
immediately applicable. But today’s preoccupations
are inevitably myopic, often ephemeral, giving little
thought for tomorrow. The ideas, thoughts and tech-
nologies that tomorrow will need or that will forge
tomorrow, are hid from us, and foresight exercises have
had a lamentable r
ecor
d of success in attempting to
predict them. Just as the breathtaking pace of scientif-
ic, technological and societal innovation
has changed and is changing the way
we live, in an unpredictable way, so will
it in the future. The universities in their
creative, free-thinking mode are a vital
resource for that future and an insurance
against it. The policies being increasing-
ly pressed upon them implicitly assume
a knowable future or a static societal or economic
frame. As Drew Faust has said, in her inaugural address
as President of Harvard
10
: “A university is not about
results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a
student has become by graduation. It is about lear
ning
that moulds a lifetime; learning that transmits the her-
itage of millennia; learning that shapes the future”.
24.
A university that moulds itself only to present
demands is one that is not listening to its historians.
Histor
y is at its most illuminating when written with the
full consciousness of what people wrongly expected
to happen. Even in the domain of technology, future
developments only a few years away have been
7
What are universities for?
10 The Boston Globe. October 12, 2007.
As league table follows
league table, they are
pored over obsessively
for signs of progress
or decline.
Universities must
articulate more clear-
ly what they stand for,
and their true role in
society.
s
hrouded from contemporary eyes. Many, possibly
most, have arisen unexpectedly from research with
other objectives, and assessments of technological
p
otential have invariably missed the mark. For exam-
ple, Roosevelt’s 1937 Commission to advise on the
most likely innovations of the succeeding 30 years not
o
nly identified many unrealised technologies, but
missed nuclear energy, lasers, computers, xerox, jet
engines, radar, sonar, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals,
the genetic code and many more. Thirty years ago,
scientists who studied climate change were regarded
as harmless but irrelevant. But the serendipitous
investment in their works revealed processes that we
now recognise as threatening the future of human
society, and the successors to those scientists are
playing a crucial role in assessing how we need to
adapt. Francis Fukuyama’s 1992
11
claim of “The End
of History
” was soon falsified as, within a decade, his-
tory reinvented itself, gearing into fast-forward mode
with unanticipated transformations in economic prac-
tice, in social and religious experience and political
relationships.
25.
Notwithstanding these lessons from the recent past,
much current thinking about universities implies a pre-
dominant concern that they should gear themselves
only to immediate demands. W
e ar
gue that in research,
in teaching and in learning it is not only important that
universities address and train for current needs, but
equally important that they develop the thinking and
the mental and conceptual skills and habits that equip
their graduates to adapt to change and even steer it if
circumstances permit. Uncertainty about future rele-
vance in the spectrum of research or of curricula is
such that a Darwinian adaptive model is the most
appropriate; where both range across the whole land-
scape of human understanding and experience,
embodied not only in the natural sciences and technol-
ogy but also in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
The key to retaining the flexibility to exploit the unex-
pected lies in a fundamental understanding of the
nature of phenomena. Such understanding continu-
ously resynthesis specific knowledge in the form of
general understanding that is br
oadly applicable, such
t
hat a com-
plex narrative
in one gener-
a
tion can be
replaced by a
simpler one
i
n succeed-
ing generations. Basic research that compresses and
generalises understanding in this way invigorates
teaching that probes the limits of understanding.
Together, they are the fuel for the university engine.
Such generic understanding also represents a funda-
mental “transferable skill” which can be applied to a
much wider range of circumstances and phenomena
than any catalogue of specific knowledge. It is a vital
investment in the future.
THE UNIVERSITY AND “USEFUL
KNOWLEDGE”
26.
We concur with the view that universities’ fundamental
contribution to society lies in creating and passing on
“useful knowledge”, and engaging with society in its
application, but argue that the definition of utility is
often too nar
r
owly drawn. As is evident from the argu-
ment so far, we do not concur with the increasing
assumption that useful knowledge is only that immedi-
ate knowledge which forms the basis for the technolo-
gies and skills believed to be crucial for economic suc-
cess. Useful knowledge, and the skills that go with it,
are derivative from a deeper capability that is insuffi-
ciently credited by government, and often relinquished
for shallower perceptions of utility by the very academ-
ics who should most cherish it. It is a capability deeply
embedded in the fundamental role that universities
have in creating new knowledge and transmitting it to
successive generations together with the knowledge
which has been accumulated by predecessors and
which in each generation is subjected to r
enewed tests
of verification.
27.
We argue that in practice, many of the qualities that
gover
nments prize in universities are by-products of
deeper functions of the university. If those functions are
undermined, the rest will also fail. The ideas and capac-
ities that the futur
e will need are a singularly important
part of universities’ work. Benefits are reaped long after
the seeds are sown – one can justifiably say that there
8
11 Fukuyama, Francis. The end of histor
y and the last man. Penguin, London. 1992.
A university that moulds itself only
to present demands is not listen-
ing to its historians.
The most useful knowledge
is that grounded in deep
understanding. It is often
supplanted by shallower
perceptions of utility.
a
re two sorts of science: applied and not yet applied,
and that the same is true of the whole domain of knowl-
edge. Current policy preoccupations with the short-
t
erm are fundamentally at odds with the sustainable
effect which governments must hope for from universi-
ties over the longer term. Indeed, some governments
i
ncreasingly place their emphasis exclusively on stud-
ies with near-term economic impact.
28.
Let us therefore examine how university contributions
to society are achieved through their historic roles in
education and research, and how they should best
respond to current priorities for outreach, in contribut-
ing to innovation, and in public and international
engagement. They are by no means all the roles that
universities do or could play, but are the major parts
of their current effort and the focus of current debate.
Education
29.
There is, or should be, in university education, a con-
cern not only with what is learned, but also with how
it is learned. Too much pedagogy is concerned solely
with the transfer of information. Even an education
directed towards immediate vocational ends is less
than it could be, and graduates ar
e left with less
potential than they might have, if it fails to engage the
student in grappling with uncertainty, with deep
underlying issues and with context. Generation by
generation universities serve to make students think.
They do so by feeding and training their instinct to
understand and seek meaning. It is a process where-
by young people, and those of more mature years
who increasingly join them as students, are taught to
question interpretations that are given to them, to
reduce the chaos of information to the order of an
analytical argument. They are taught to seek out what
is relevant to the resolution of a problem; they learn
progressively to identify problems for themselves and
to r
esolve them by rational argu-
ment supported by evidence;
and they learn not to be dis-
mayed by complexity but to be
capable and daring in unravelling
it. They learn to seek the true
meaning of things: to distinguish between the tr
ue
and the merely seemingly true, to verify for them-
selves what is stable in that very unstable compound
that often passes for knowledge. These are deeply
personal, private goods, but they are also public
goods. They ar
e the qualities which ever
y society
n
eeds in its citizens. That is even more the case in our
European societies since our culture believes that fair
and open societies, which can resolve legitimate
c
ompetition between individuals and groups and har-
monise legitimate differences, are only maintained by
participatory democracy. It is universities that pro-
d
uce these citizens, or at least enough of them to
leaven and lead society generation by generation.
30.
Moreover, and once again, many of the qualities
prized by government - entrepreneurship, manageri-
al capacity, leadership,
vision, teamwork,
adaptability and the
effective application of
specific technical skills -
are not primary features,
but are derived from the
more fundamental quali-
ties explored in the pre-
vious paragraph. It is
these qualities that poli-
cy and university man-
agement should seek to
reinvigorate. The more recently advocated functions
of universities are only part of a wider project which
contains their essence. That capability which leads to
economically significant outcomes is derivative from a
deeper creativity. It has been misguidedly made to
stand as a proxy for useful knowledge; but universi-
ties should read their function more widely and more
intelligently.
31.
But should we focus more of our efforts, more status,
more student funding in teaching the scientific and
technological disciplines that are believed to be
engines of the knowledge economy, and even here to
focus more on immediate applicability? We do not
recognise a rational basis for a university’s spectrum
of taught disciplines or programmes of study other
than those of student demand, the
progress and potential of specific
areas of study, which naturally wax
and wane with the tempo of dis
-
covery, the demand for knowledge
in the public domain and the
pr
ospects of employment. There is virtue in leaving
students free to choose their studies without exces-
sive direction towards subjects which will supposedly
bring them or society the greatest material benefit.
Studies that speak to a student’s enthusiasms are
mor
e likely to stimulate the capacities of paragraph 29
9
What are universities for?
Too much pedagogy is con-
cerned solely with the
transfer of information.
Universities serve to
make students think:
to resolve problems
by argument sup-
ported by evidence;
not to be dismayed
by complexity, but
bold in unravelling it.
a
bove than unengaged, dutiful pursuit of a prescribed
discipline. Our understanding of ourselves and of
nature, and our exploitation of that understanding,
r
emain the means whereby societies are able to
progress, economically, socially and culturally. If there
is a current malaise in Europe, it is likely to be as much
s
ocial and cultural as economic. Understanding our
past, understanding the cosmos around us, under-
standing our social relations, our cognition and our
material selves are all parts of a nexus that is needed
in a healthy and aware society, and one that is reflect-
ed in the diverse contemporary demands for litera-
ture, television and for leisure. Moreover, the process-
es of innovation that lead to economic development
depend in practice on inspiration from this whole
range of understanding, and not exclusively or partic-
ularly on a restricted part of it.
32.
Globalisation has increased the pressure for public
and private goods to be marketed and sold as com-
modities. It has been argued that students should be
regarded as customers, with the university as service
provider, a view that many university managers have
accepted, either implicitly or explicitly. This redefini-
tion assumes a direct relationship between the acqui-
sition of specific technical skills and their deployment
in specific r
oles in the contemporar
y economy. Again,
it reflects expectation of an “in-out” relationship
between the current
demand for skills
and university edu-
cation. It assumes
that the skills that
society and the
economy need are
simply ones of tech-
nical specialisation, which we reject for the reasons
argued above. It assumes a quasi-contractual rela-
tionship between the customer and provider, analo-
gous to the skills one might pay to acquire in learning
to drive a car
. It subverts the open-ended, often trans-
formative relationship between academics and their
students that disturbs complacency and fits gradu-
ates to confr
ont and deal with the challenges of com-
plexity and change. The censorship exerted by cur-
rent market need over what is difficult or innovative, or
intellectually or aesthetically demanding can be such
as to undermine the university’s role to provide for the
future.
33.
We are aware that statements about the deeper, per-
sonal values of education can easily be traduced as
s
entimental attachment to an ivory tower, detached
from a world of employment and the insistent utilitarian
demands from a variety of stakeholders. We retort that
s
uch values are themselves utilitarian. They form a
bedrock that enables the practical skills needed by
society to be most intelligently deployed: those of doc-
t
ors, engineers, nurses, scientists, teachers, account-
ants, lawyers, ministers, businessmen, social scien-
tists, and those who will promote and perform the cre-
ative arts. The combination of deep, personal under-
standing and technical skill is a powerful alchemy that
sustains a creative and innovative society. All universi-
ties, and their stakeholders, should be committed to its
support. The annual flux of skilled graduates armed
with these capacities continually refreshes society’s
technical excellence and its economic, social and cul-
tural vitality, and are crucial to its capability to take
bold, imaginative and principled action in the face of an
uncertain future, rather than cowering in fear of it.
34.
Neither should these values be thought of as exclu-
sive to comprehensive research-intensive universities.
The diverse institutions that now make up the
University sector in Europe and beyond, which reflect
both the welcome explosion in higher education for a
greater proportion of the population and an increasing
diversity of demand, all need to r
espond to these
imperatives, whether they are classical research-
intensive universities or universities that give priority
to vocational, technical education. The point is to
direct a student’s attention to that which, at first,
exceeds their grasp, but whose compelling fascina-
tion draws them after it. Watering down condescends
to the unknown capabilities within ourselves. It con-
descends towards those judged,
a priori, to be inca-
pable of better things.
Research
35.
Successful r
esearch, whether in the sciences, human-
ities or social sciences, depends upon a culture and
individual attitudes that value curiosity, scepticism,
ser
endipity, creativity and genius. They are values that
are crucial to the university educational process at its
most profound, and are most readily acquired in an
envir
onment of free-ranging speculation and research
that is permeated by them. Their transfer into society
by graduates who embody them is an essential con-
tribution to an innovative culture and a spirit of
informed civic responsibility.
10
Statements about the
deeper values of educa-
tion can be traduced as
sentimental. We regard
them as deeply utilitarian.
3
6.
N
ot only does its research create the frame for a uni-
versity’s educational role, but universities have also
proved to be highly cost effective settings for basic
r
esearch in particular. The reasons may lie in their
non-hierarchical nature, the pervasive presence of the
irreverent young, whose minds are not so full of the
m
eans of refutation that original ideas are denied
entry, and the highly competitive nature of most fund-
ing for university research, in contrast to specialist
research institutes, where the peace and quiet to
focus on a mission, undistracted by teaching or other
responsibilities, and with relatively assured funding,
may be a questionable blessing
1
2
. By the same
token, the excitable and dynamic nature of universi-
ties suits them much less well to the pursuit of long-
term, strategic research objectives. This university
inclination towards basic research, which seeks to
explore the fundamentals of phenomena, also chimes
well with their educational role, in stimulating the flex-
ible modes of thought and creativity that are adapt-
able to a wide range of circumstances, and the deeply
personal ownership of the basis for lifelong learning.
37.
Universities, particularly comprehensive universities,
are unique amongst human institutions in the range of
knowledge they encompass. As a consequence, they
have the potential rapidly to r
estr
ucture and recom-
bine their skills in novel ways to address both the
many trans-disciplinary issues that are becoming
increasingly important, and also to explore new, unex-
pected avenues of understanding. As the pace of un-
anticipated discovery and the urgency of demand
increase, this capacity is increasingly vital, although
universities have not exploited it as
decisively as they should. Although
much has been made of the need to
develop and maintain critical mass in
research, the
critical diversity required
to confront challenges as they arise or
to create novel combinations of
r
esearchers to address evolving trans-
disciplinary demands is often more
important. And electronic networks are no substitute
for diverse and dynamic communities of place.
I
nnovation
38.
We referred earlier to the
s
tress currently laid on the
role of universities as
engines of innovation and
e
conomic development, and
the drive to shift university
behaviour in order to give
prominence or priority to
these issues. The crucial
question is whether and to
what extent this is true and
appropriate. By implication,
the European Commission believes that it is, given the
equality of treatment afforded to education, research
and innovation in their so-called “knowledge triangle”
in its recent communication
4
, and the way in which
this is to be embedded in the European Institute of
Innovation and Technology (EIT) as a putative exem-
plar of a world-class university for the modern world.
We have no doubt that universities have a fundamen-
tal contribution to make to the innovation process, but
it is important to understand what that contribution is,
and not to assume, as many increasingly do, that uni-
versities are direct drivers of innovation, and that this
could be their primar
y rationale.
39.
Universities can and do contribute to the innovation
process, but not as its drivers. Innovation is domi-
nantly a process of business engagement with mar-
kets, in which universities can only play a minor active
role. They do however contribute to the fertility of the
environment that innovation needs if it
is to flourish. University commerciali-
sation activities themselves, the cre-
ation of spin-out and start-up compa-
nies and licensing of intellectual prop-
erty, do not, even in the USA, where
university commercialisation is best
developed, dir
ectly contribute signifi-
cantly to GNP. These activities have a
different role. They help to create an environment
sympathetic to and suppor
tive of innovation, and par-
ticularly where they are associated with international-
ly competitive research and excellent graduates, they
12 May, R.M. The scientific wealth of nations. Science. 1997. “The reasons may lie in their non-hierarchical nature, the pervasive presence of the irrever-
ent young, and the highly competitive nature of most funding for university research, in contrast to specialist research institutes, where the peace and
quiet to focus on a mission, undistracted by teaching or other r
esponsibilities, and with r
elatively assur
ed funding, may be a questionable blessing.”
11
What are universities for?
Universities are
unique amongst
human institutions in
the range of knowl-
edge they encompass.
Innovation is
dominantly a
process of busi-
ness engagement
with markets.
Universities can
only play a minor
active role.
c
reate a hubbub of creativity that attracts research-
intensive companies and investment into a region,
and help catalyse innovation in indigenous business-
e
s. The bedrock for this potential remains however the
university’s commitment to education in the deepest
sense, and its exploration at and beyond the limits of
h
uman understanding. A recent study of the role of
higher education in meeting international business
demands
13
concludes that it is “the quality of staff at
all levels that is the most important determinant of
business competitiveness”. To which we would retort
that the individual qualities embodied in university
graduates, developed through the classical educa-
tional processes summarised in paragraph 29, and
leavened by appropriate technical skills, are crucial
contributions from universities.
40.
There is much debate about “innovation systems”;
how they should be structured and the role of univer-
sities in them. The notion of a single, durable and
generically applicable innova-
tion system is a seductive
concept for policy makers, but
misconceived. A recent LERU
report
14
gave examples of the
great diversity of ways in
which universities contribute
to innovation processes,
which vary according to the
nature of the regional economy, the business sector
involved and the nature of the university. Indeed it is
clear that multiple innovation systems operate con-
currently in the same region and that the mosaic of
innovation changes through time. Innovation systems
might best be defined as an “ecology”
15
, in which
interactions between different actors produce emer-
gent behaviour that is highly adaptive to circumstance
and opportunity.
41.
If this is a good description of reality, it warns against
generic gover
nmental or European Commission inter-
ventions that take a prescriptive view of innovation
processes or structures. A key principle is that it is
autonomy of action by an institution that is awar
e of
r
egional priorities that gives an institution the greatest
potential to contribute, not only to market innovation,
but also to innovation in cultural and social spheres.
T
he key processes are those that stimulate interac-
tion. It is a matter of concern that the principle of
developing enabling processes that can support a
w
ide variety of activities is often not recognised by
funders of research at national and European levels,
who frequently propose to reinvent and prescribe
knowledge transfer structures at levels far removed
from the research base. This risks increasing the con-
straints on universities’ efforts to use intellectual prop-
erty and capability creatively, and, at worst, stopping
successful initiatives in their tracks
1
6
.
42.
It is erroneous to think of innovation, as some of these
interventions implicitly do, as a supply-driven
process, fuelled by inventions, often created in univer-
sities, and particularly in science and technology.
Although few would admit it, this can be the only
rationale for some governmental
policies of recent years. In prac-
tise, although attention must be
given to the quality of supply of
excellent education, excellent
research and responsiveness to
business needs, this of itself is not
enough. Where demand is weak,
excellent supply has rarely been
sufficient to stimulate it. Governmental intervention
has often been a powerful stimulus for demand, with
government use of public procurement of research
products from companies as a particularly potent
device for stimulating the growth of knowledge-inten-
sive companies and increasing private investment in
R&D.
14
It is also the case that as the service sector
becomes pre-dominant in developed economies,
knowledge-intensive growth depends on a much
wider range of inspiration than just science and tech-
nology, and in which the arts and humanities are play-
ing an incr
easing role
17
.
43.
It is a common myth that the primary deficit in innova-
tion is failur
e to exploit research inventions, and to
12
Autonomous academics have
the freedom, and the duty, lib-
erally to contribute their
understanding to the benefit
of society.
13 Council for Industr
y and Higher Education. International competitiveness and the role of universities. April 2007.
14 League of European Research Universities. Universities and innovation: the challenge for Europe. October 2006.
15 Universities and public research organisations in the European Research Area. Report from the Expert Group on Knowledge for Growth. David, P.A.
and Metcalfe, S. European Commission. 2007.
16 League of European Research Universities. The future of the European Research Area. April 2007.
17 National Endowment for Science, T
echnology and the Ar
ts. Hidden Innovation. 2007.
o
vercome this deficit, that universities should be more
pro-active agents of innovation. The university role in
innovation is in developing human capital, at bache-
l
ors, masters and doctoral levels; in contributing to
the intellectual, social and cultural resources of a
region in ways that encourage inward investment of
k
nowledge intensive business; in helping to stimulate
entrepreneurial activity; and in collaborating with busi-
ness to create mechanisms of interaction.
Public engagement
44.
Academics have long contributed freely their special-
ist knowledge or distinctive perspectives to public
bodies, and to a broader public through lectures,
debate, discussion or performance, and as “public
intellectuals”, who take on a public role to stimulate
debate or social activism. Much of this engagement is
negotiated with and by individual academics and their
students, often without the formal consent or even
knowledge of their universities. It is part of the “halo”
effect of a university, and depends entirely on the pre-
sumption that autonomous academics have the free-
dom, and the duty, to promote learning and under-
standing. Though a “cottage industry”, its aggregate
contribution to civic society can be ver
y gr
eat.
45.
It is timely that this aspect of university capacity
should be better cherished and rewarded by the uni-
versities themselves and recognised and supported
by government. The increasing priority for “evidence-
based” public policies depends on access to a wide
range of specialists, many based in
universities, and the willingness of
academics to be called upon for
advice and involvement in the policy
process. Equally there are many
major current issues, such as cli-
mate change, energy, food security,
and genetic manipulation, that lie
both at the margin of scientific
understanding and in the domain of
ethical contention, such that deliberative public
engagement with the issues and uncertainties associ-
ated with them is required if effective and publicly
acceptable policies ar
e to be introduced. Academics’
reputations for independence and their credibility
make them ideal interlocutors in such debates whilst
t
heir universities provide an ideal, neutral space for
engagement. These are challenges and opportunities
to which the modern university must respond.
46.
However, in an age that reveres management, metrics
and regulation, the perception that such engagement
i
s an important part of the role of the university, its
academics and its students, naturally leads govern-
ment and funding bodies to encourage its corporate
management. The temptation is to assume that such
activities need to be measured and incentivised, lead-
ing to a duller, more routinely managed effort, which is
increasingly seen as an imposition justifying payment
or contract rather than a natural expression of the uni-
versity ethos and of the academic vocation. The chal-
lenge is in part for university managers, to create, with
a light touch, an enabling environment that supports
and encourages such activity, exploiting the universi-
ty’s greatest strength, its diversity of inspiration, rather
than stifling it by overmanagement or inappropriate
metrics. In part the challenge is for government and
other bodies to express the need and to fashion the
processes through which such inputs to public policy
and engagement can be made.
Inter
national engagement
47.
Academic scholars have maintained networks of inter-
national links since the early days of universities, long
before the phenomenon of globalisation ushered in by
the recent communications revolution. That revolution
has destroyed geographical barriers to communication
and interaction, such that we now live
in a novel world of virtual proximity,
global perception and awareness.
Some take an optimistic view of these
developments, that they “will increase
understanding, foster tolerance, and
ultimately promote worldwide
peace”
18
. Others ar
e more pes-
simistic. They see a world in which we
are no longer cocooned in ignorance
of the elsewher
e, but borne in on by every drama, every
twist of fortune as it happens, wherever it happens, and
with social attitudes and political processes that are ill-
adapted to cope with these changes. But ir
respective of
the outcome, the opportunity for universities to play an
independent, mediating role in this changing world is
13
What are universities for?
A shar
ed ethos enables
them to collaborate
across cultural divides
and deepen their stu-
dents’ understanding of
a complex world.
18 Cair
ncr
oss, F
. Death of distance 2.0. T
exer
e, New Y
ork. 2001.
c
lear. Internationally, they are located in different cultur-
al milieus, but they share a common ethos that permits
them to collaborate across cultural divides and to deep-
e
n in their students a sympathy for and understanding
of the diversity of cultural assumptions and the com-
plexities of the modern world. Over the last decade, uni-
v
ersities have begun to develop international corporate
links and networks that are increasingly used in struc-
tured ways to intensify dialogue, to articulate education-
al collaborations and to undertake joint research on
major global problems. A convergent trend, that of
increasing student mobility, should be seized on by
them as the basis for the common task of educating the
rising generation as global citizens, rather than merely
as contributors to a university’s finances or to the
national workforce. These changes in behaviour, the
rational and humane values that universities increasing-
ly share, and the democratising force that they repre-
sent, also make it timely for them to find a common
voice in intervening in international debate about global
issues.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE HUMANITIES
AND SOCIAL SCIENCES
48.
The arguments presented above are generic argu-
ments, applicable to the whole spectrum of university
disciplines. However, we wish to single out and
underline the role of the humanities and social sci-
ences, as government policies for universities, partic-
ularly in research, too frequently concentrate on sci-
ence, technology and medicine, with a perfunctory
nod towards the humanities and social sciences that
implicitly undervalues their importance for society.
49.
The humanities are concerned with what it means to
be human: the stories, the ideas, the words that help
us make sense of our lives and the world we live in;
how we have cr
eated it, and are created by it. They
give voice to feeling and artistic shape to experience,
exploring issues of morality and value. The social sci-
ences attempt to deduce, thr
ough scientific observa-
tion, the processes that govern the behaviour of indi-
v
iduals and groups. They are crucial to the creation of
effective social policy.
5
0.
T
here is an implicit notion that the understanding they
confer is less important than that loosely termed “sci-
ence”, although natural scientists themselves rarely
t
ake that view. Research in the humanities and social
sciences is concerned with issues that are essential to
stability, good order, creativity and inspiration in soci-
ety. In these disciplines are gathered the thinking,
learning, and explanation of what binds and what
separates human beings. They seek not only to
understand and make accessible that extraordinary
intensity and complexity of beauty by which humans
specify themselves in the merging of thought, emotion
and expression – a high enough mission by any stan-
dard. More important for our purpose, they provide
understanding of why and how we express differently
our common characteristics of being, as well as how
we differ as individuals, groups and cultures. History –
and none more so than recent and contemporary his-
tory – demonstrates how supremely important the dis-
semination of that understanding is to stable and
healthy societies. Globalisation, especially in its
effects of instantly accessible worldwide information,
and increasingly mobile populations, has created
political complexity by bringing once distant cultural
assumptions into close proximity, and makes this an
ever more pressing necessity. It would be absurdly
naive to argue that an understanding society (another
form of “knowledge society”) would be devoid of divi-
sive competition and destructive conflict. At the same
time, though, ignorance is the surest route to panic,
hatred, and devastation.
51.
Research in the arts, humanities and social sciences
is a core resource and stimulus for cultural perform-
ance, exhibition and maintenance of the historic envi-
ronment, and is increasingly embedded in the norms
of popular culture. It promotes historical understand-
ing of our own and other cultur
es, religions and soci-
eties. It fosters public debate and engagement with
the complexities of modern life, especially those
which involve conflicting moralities, traditions and
beliefs. Through its humane values, it provides crucial
support for civic virtues and open, accessible govern-
ment, on which civilised society depends. Its societal
and humane focus addresses major current social,
cultural, ethical and economic challenges, including
the impact of scientific and medical advances, the
management of international relations, development
14
Universities must not be seduced
by the fallacy of managerial pri-
macy.
a
nd security, and the effects of globalisation and
migration. It contributes decisively to today’s recogni-
tion that modern society depends on the whole range
a
nd interconnectedness of knowledge rather than on
a few academic disciplines. It makes an increasingly
effective practical contribution, together with other
d
isciplines, to the creation of public policy.
52.
The acknowledgement that moral, social and political
progress have not kept pace with mastery of the
physical world shows the need for more intensified
research, fresh insights, vigorous criticism and inven-
tiveness in the humanities and social sciences. Many
major contemporary issues, the introduction of novel
and disruptive technologies, policies for health, edu-
cation and penal reform, the consequences of climate
change and the development of new energy systems
require engagement across the whole disciplinary
spectrum if they are to be rationally addressed.
THE CHALLENGE FOR UNIVERSITY
GOVERNANCE
53.
We wrote at the beginning of this essay of “the open-
ness to contradiction that is par
t of the genius of the
university”. One of those contradictions derives from
the relative freedom and autonomy of academics, and
the lack of inhibition of its students; which are the
source both of the university’s greatest strength and
its greatest weakness. On the one hand it generates a
hubbub of creativity and entrepreneurial initiatives
that stimulate diverse and sometimes towering intel-
lectual achievement. On the other, it can be the
source of profound resistance to managed change or
the orchestration of joint efforts in response to chang-
ing societal needs. A central dilemma for university
governance is therefore how to retain the sense of
ownership of the university enterprise by its members,
which cr
eates the setting for their
creativity to range freely, whilst
implementing the structural
changes that ar
e inevitably needed
from time to time if a university is to
remain a creative force for future
generations.
54.
Managing such a university is not
like managing industrial production in response to
market demand. There is a core of the university oper-
ation that r
equir
es ef
ficient top-down management,
s
uch as the framework for teaching, the structures of
research support, technology transfer and profession-
al services. But the crucial attribute, for both students
a
nd academics, is a culture of individual freedom, cre-
ativity and serendipity. It provides the frame for new
insights and understanding; gives free rein to the
e
nthusiasms and commitment that lead to public
engagement; and for the space to create new enter-
prises that as they mature can be absorbed into the
formal operation of the university, and so change its
shape and direction. A current danger in many coun-
tries stems from the financial benefits that come to a
university through research funding mechanisms.
These can be such powerful drivers of behaviour and
corporate motivation that top-down mechanisms are
driving some institutions close to becoming strongly
managed research institutes, squeezing out diversity
of function and undermining teaching and learning.
55.
Political boldness is also required. The freedom to
enquire, to debate, to criticise and to speak truth to
power, whether it be the power of government, of
those that fund the university, or those who manage it,
is central to the vitality of the university and its utility
to society. It is crucial that rectors and university gov-
erning boards understand this essential source of
institutional str
ength, that they ar
e steadfast in its
support, strong in its defence and are not seduced by
the fallacy of managerial primacy: that things that
make management difficult necessarily need to be
removed or reformed. An easily governed university is
no university at all.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND TRUST
56.
Such freedom however poses a dilemma for govern-
ment. For bodies that are largely funded from the pub-
lic purse, universities and their staff have a unique free-
dom fr
om governmental direction and
control. But in an era where there is
said to be a deepening crisis of trust
and a cultur
e of suspicion about pub-
lic bodies and professionals, the
demands for accountability in
exchange for this fr
eedom have
grown. Although there has been wide-
spread recognition of the value of uni-
versity autonomy in permitting institutions to act deci-
sively and flexibly in response to need or opportunity,
and wher
e state contr
ol is r
ecognised as having been a
15
What are universities for?
The challenge is to
exploit the potential of
autonomy and freedom
without oppressive
accountability.
barrier to development, freedom is necessarily accom-
panied by calls for greater accountability. However,
accountability can often be control by another name.
Increasingly bureaucratic mechanisms of accountabili-
ty have been established to verify that the trust implied
in freedom from control is justified. Detailed regulations,
memoranda, instructions, guidance, and lists of “best
practice” flood into institutions, too frequently
focussing on processes rather than outcomes. Even
then, such mechanisms rarely penetrate sufficiently
deeply into the processes they are supposed to verify
to achieve their aim. Quality assurance does not meas-
ure the quality of education, merely some of the sec-
ond-order issues associated with education. Their prin-
cipal result is to impose unproductive bureaucratic bur-
dens. It is vital to understand that such mechanisms
can ultimately undermine the outcomes that are a uni-
versity’s principal benefit to society. The challenge to
universities, gover
nment and society is to ar
ticulate a
compact that recognises the value of autonomy and
freedom and supports them, but is able to assess the
value and benefit without oppressive mechanisms that
undermine a university’s potential.
57.
One of the dilemmas facing governments where they
are the major funder of universities, is to find an
appropriate basis for funding: one that will enable
them to be bold and creative in using their capacities
to address the diversity of functions alluded to in this
essay. Whilst universities should be funded for how
well they do the things that make them what they are,
it is too easy to develop one or two lines of funding,
driven by metrics that stand pr
oxy for deeper, elusive
qualities, that so drive university behaviour that they
pour excessive efforts into the satisfaction of the met-
ric rather than the pr
operties metrics attempt to
measure. Such metrics can also have the perverse
consequence of driving out much of the creative
diversity of behaviour that is one of the university’
s
great strengths.
CONCLUSIONS
58.
It is our contention that slipshod thinking about the
r
oles that universities can play in society is leading to
demands that they cannot satisfy, whilst obscuring
their most important contributions to society, and, in
t
he process, undermining their potential. It is wrong, in
our view, to expect (to use language from the begin-
ning of this paper) that universities will be dynamos of
growth and huge generators of wealth, leading to eco-
nomic prosperity and enhanced quality of life on any-
thing like the scale that is implicit in such language. In
a European context, where governments are principal
funders of universities, the assumption is that they are
a lever which, when pulled, will gush forth the tangible
effects of economic prosperity into which public
money has been transformed. In reality, universities
can only be one part of the process of producing a
successful knowl-
edge economy. The
oft-quoted example
of Silicon Valley and
Stanford University is
far more subtle and
complex than a sim-
ple reading allows. It
is a compound of
capitalist enterprise,
technical and legal
services, skilled
labour, a broad range
of social provision in the public domain, local and
state government policy, the appetites of an histori-
cally entrepreneurial culture, and maybe even climate.
The exact part of universities in all that is not easy to
measure. This is akin to saying that humans would not
exist without sperm and egg. Of course not; but they
are not what creates that wonderful diversity of indi-
vidualities amongst which each one of us has their
own place. To confine universities to such a mechan-
ical place in the pr
ogress of society is to diminish
them; it invites doomed attempts to measure intangi-
ble effects by unyielding metrics; it offers only eventu-
al disillusion.
59.
Universities deal with the universality of knowledge;
they ar
e concerned with human beings in all their man-
ifestations – biological, mental, emotional, objective
and subjective – and their social, cultural and econom-
ic organisations and interactions with each other; they
are concerned with the physical world within which
human beings find themselves. They seek to under
-
16
Slipshod thinking is leading to
demands that universities cannot
satisfy, whilst obscuring their
most important contributions.
To confine them
to such a
mechanical
place in society
is to diminish
them; it offers
only eventual
disillusion.
17
Doctoral studies in Europe: excellence in researcher training
19 Creating an innovative Europe. Report of the Independent Expert group chaired by Esko Aho. European Commission. January 2006.
20 Delivering on the modernisation agenda for universities: education, research and innovation. European Commission. COM (2006) 208.
21 Lamber
t, R. and Butler
, N. The futur
e of Eur
opean universities: r
enaissance or decay? Centr
e for European Reform. 2006.
What are universities for?
s
tand that which we do not understand; they seek to
explain complexity; they seek to discover that which is
hidden from us. They seek to establish what is com-
m
on to all of us and what distinguishes us each from
another or each group from another. These things are
common to the whole of university endeavour whatev-
e
r the discipline. They are not “academic” in the pejo-
rative sense of the word, but are of profound, practical
utility. They are the foundation upon which the universi-
ty enterprise rests and upon which its significance for
society is built.
60.
There are two important points to derive from these
propositions. The first is that it is the totality of the uni-
versity enterprise that is important. One cannot simply
separate one element and say that is what we want
and that is what we will pay for. Human society is not
separable in the way that governments would neces-
sarily wish to decompose it for the purpose of discrete
policy actions. It is a complex interacting whole,
which needs to be understood as a whole. No one
discipline suffices to seize the whole – whether the
whole individual or the whole social construct. Of
course, public policy will place a premium on this or
that aspect at different times, but it cannot simply set
about neglecting the rest on the purely temporary and
ther
efor
e relative grounds of a present concern.
Indeed, universities are the only place in society
where that totality of ourselves and our world is
brought together. It is universities in their diversity of
preoccupations that are the strongest providers of
rational explanation and meaning that societies need.
61.
Universities are not just supermarkets for a variety of
public and private goods that are currently in demand,
and whose value is defined by their perceived aggre-
gate financial value. We assert that they have a deep-
er, fundamental role that permits them to adapt and
respond to the changing values and needs of succes-
sive generations, and from which the outputs cher-
ished by gover
nments are but secondary derivatives.
To define the university enterprise by these specific
outputs, and to fund it only through metrics that
measur
e them, is to misunderstand the nature of the
enterprise and its potential to deliver social benefit.
T
hese issues of function and purpose are important,
and need to be explicit. They must be part of the
frame for the animated debate taking place in Europe
t
hat generates headlines such as “creating an innova-
tive Europe”
19
, “delivering on the modernisation agen-
da for universities”
2
0
, and “the future of European uni-
v
ersities: renaissance or decay?”
2
1
.
62.
The second point is that the instinct to understand, to
find meaning, to map oneself and one’s actions and
the world, is essentially human. In our view, this is one
of the principal definitions of humanity, even if one
were to reduce it simply to primordial angst.
Knowledge is a human attribute, quite distinct from,
say, the tool-making skills of the New Caledonian
crow or the communication skills of the chimpanzee.
Therefore, those parts of the university and its
research which deal with the human being as an indi-
vidual or as a collectivity (that is, the humanities and
the social sciences) are as important as science and
technology and are as central to the well-being of
society.
LERU Publications
The Future of the European Research Area (September 2007)
Doctoral Studies in Europe: Excellence in Researcher Training (May 2007)
Universities and Innovation:The Challenge for Europe (November 2006)
Commentary on the Purpose, Structure and Functions of a European Institute of Technology (May 2006)
Competitiveness, Research and the Concept of a European Institute of Technology (November 2005)
Growth, Research-intensive Universities and the European Research Council (March 2005)
Unlocking Europe’s Intellectual Potential - Universities and a European Common Market for Research (April 2004)
Research-intensive Universities as Engines for the “Europe of Knowledge” (May 2003)
The European Higher Education and Research Areas and the Role of Research-intensive Universities (August 2002)
All papers are freely available on the LERU website: http://www.leru.org
LERU Office
Huis Bethlehem
Schapenstraat 34
B-3000 Leuven
Belgium
tel +32 16 32 99 71
fax +32 16 32 99 68
www.leru.org
info@leru.org
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Delivering on the Modernization Agenda for Universities: Education, Research and Innovation
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