Menu Close

The modern university must reinvent itself to survive

The dreaming spires of universities must evolve to survive. allaboutuni/flickr

Foundation Essay – In 1529 the great monasteries of England and the 400 smaller establishments had never looked so good. They were doubly protected, by universal belief and by their many material connections into English society, the economy, politics and the court.

Monasteries were centres of farming and craft production, the source of community welfare, way stations for travellers across the land. They provided valued careers for younger sons. Cathedrals loomed over the landscape. Holders of vast wealth and power, the monasteries could not be touched.

Ten years later in 1539 the bill for the confiscation of the large monasteries passed the parliament. They were already gone, their plate and jewellery seized by the Crown, their personnel forcibly expelled, furniture and hangings left for pillage or rot, and much of the massive stonework dismantled for local building. The smaller establishments had been dissolved by statute three years earlier.

After the death of the monasteries life went on. The fires of hell did not swallow up Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII’s Inquest into the monasteries. The King soon squandered his new wealth in an unsuccessful war in France. Other countries still had their cathedrals and religious houses. But the hard headed English never brought them back. They found more modest ways to worship and believe. They created other forms of charity. They became cynical about other kinds of corrupt local authority. Somebody new made the wine.

The moral of the story is that nothing in the world, not even the rock beneath our feet, abideth forever. Every so often nation-states and societies discover that they can live without the institutions they have inherited.

When institutions stand for nothing more, nothing deeper or more collective, no greater public good, than the aggregation of self-interest - like the monasteries in England, that accumulated vast social resources but came to exist only for themselves and those who used them – it is then that institutions are vulnerable. Self-interest can be channelled in a thousand other ways. The institutions disappear and their functions become picked up elsewhere.

Universities are not monasteries, not exactly. Monasteries save your soul or say they will. Universities promise to save your mortgage. They give your head a new coat of paint and send you into the job market clutching a piece of paper.

Or so it seems. But other agencies can issue certificates for work, for a fee. Research can be run from corporate or government labs. Scholars and humanists can be sent back to private life to finance their activities themselves. Students who want real knowledge can buy e-books and read them. New ideas can be sourced from civil society, the business world and the communicative space, as they were in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, and as they are from the Internet today.

What greater good would be lost if universities closed tomorrow? If higher education is emptied out of its public purposes we can no longer justify its survival.

Today’s higher education institutions need a larger purpose that underpins their existence, a purpose that is more than a marketing slogan. The 21st century university needs to redefine itself as a creator, protector and purveyor of public goods.

Since their beginnings universities have been embedded in communities, cities, nations and in Europe a global region. They are also universal and promote mobile knowledge. Universities are soaked in transmitting, studying and creating knowledge, and part of a larger network of institutions that do this, a network that has always been international. Knowledge is the unique claim of higher education. It is at the core of every public and private good that we create.

Today there are at two versions of such a collective rationale on offer. One is the Confucian ethic in East Asia. This runs deeper than the commitment to education in Western Societies—it is as deep as classical civilization or the Judeo-Christian tradition is for us. In the Confucian world the project of self-cultivation via education is joined to filial duty and the honour of the ancestral line. Success in and through education lodges the family more securely in space and time.

The other rationale is the Western tradition of education as opportunity, social improvement, modernization and economic enrichment. When we talk about higher education for public good, we normally draw from these values. In the last century they have driven the growth of mass higher education systems across the globe, in East Asia along with the rest. But the Western tradition of education as modernization, improvement, opportunity and enrichment contains ambiguities. In the neo-liberal era it has become more exclusively focused on modernization as economic enrichment, following western corporate and private ideals.

And perhaps Western democratic modernization in education—expressed above all by the American philosopher John Dewey (who was much interested in China)—is less specifically grounded in scholarship and research than is the Confucian tradition.

The slide into credentialism—‘just a piece of paper’—is a little easier for us. Nevertheless, both traditions are prone to credentialism. Current debates about the university, in China and the West, have converged. Both traditions, the Confucian ethic and democratic education as modernization, are undermined by state-driven economic instrumentalism, by modernization simply reduced to enrichment. In both China and the West it is said by many observers that the university has ‘lost its soul’.

So how do we reclaim that soul? What tools do we have with which to imagine something more ‘public’? There are two main ideas. The first derives from economics. This is Paul Samuelson’s notion of public goods and private goods (goods, plural). Public goods are available to all, and their consumption by one person won’t reduce their availability for others. Goods with neither quality are classified as fully private goods.

Knowledge is almost a pure public good, as the economist Joseph Stiglitz pointed out. Once released into the world it is available to all. Thus basic research everywhere is government funded. It is also a global public good. The mathematical theorem retains its valuable all over the world no matter how many times it is used.

The second idea is that of ‘the public good’ (singular). . It tends to emphasizes joint or collective activities and benefits, or a resource that is used by all, like the medieval commons. In the social democratic tradition the common public good is associated with democratic forms, openness, transparency, popular sovereignty and grass-roots agency.

Let’s move now to thinking about how public good or public goods are created in higher education. Public goods do not emerge in a vacuum. They do so only under the existing conditions of higher education—conditions the both limit and enable what can be achieved. I will talk about two of these conditions

First, the practice of global public good or goods in higher education has to be slotted into a landscape already occupied by established ways of imagining and practising higher education. There are three powerful ideals at work in the sector, widely known inside and outside higher education. They are associated with differing concepts, and differing political, economic and social interests. There are tensions between them. They also have a long history of co-existence. Together they shape our sense of the possible in this sector.

The first is the idea of higher education as an economic market: education and research as products, higher education as national economic competition, universities as business firms, the World Trade Organisation- of a one-world free trade zone in learning and Intellectual Property. Global capitalism provides the dominant modernizing ideals of the last two centuries. It is strong in higher education both the capitalist West and socialist China and everywhere dominates state blueprints for higher education reform.

The second idea has older roots. This is higher education as a field of status ranking and competition: universities as makers of graduate status; universities as bearers of institutional status; the higher education hierarchy regulated by world of mouth and national and global rankings.

Inside research universities the status imaginary is generally the strongest of the three. The bottom line for the university is its own prestige. Its revenues are only a means to that end. We all feel the tug of the claims of status. It seems they are irresistible in both East and West. A career at Seoul National University in Korea is so valued that selected employees pay large sums of money at entry.

The third idea is the networked and potentially more egalitarian university world patterned by communications, collegiality, linkages, partnerships and global consortia. This imaginary was always part of higher education, but has gained ground in the last twenty years, the era of global communications.

The other condition of public goods in higher education is that higher education is soaked in politics. Like the monasteries (until their dissolution), higher education is valued and contested. People use it to secure advantage. Some do so in organized ways. Politics continually shapes the production of both public and private goods. The way public goods are organized, recognized and disseminated becomes part of their contents—and the organization of public goods is shaped by the constituencies and coalitions with a stake in them.

The political process is essential to public goods. But an imperfect instrument for realizing them. It does not always recognize the collective benefits created in higher education, such as the dissemination of advanced scientific literacy. When such benefits are not embedded in active constituencies they remain invisible, undefended and underfunded. Moreover, in public political debate there is much confusion about the nature of public goods and the distinction between public and private goods.

‘The fair allocation of private goods’ in higher education is a fiction. It is unachievable. Unless—as often happens—fairness is watered down so as to judge as fair whatever unequal result is thrown up by competition. In the same manner we judge the outcome of a sporting contest post hoc as ‘fair’, when we really mean ‘an accomplished fact’. This brutish notion of fairness mostly prevails in higher education.

Competition is always better at creating private goods than public goods. Advocates of equity in higher education spend too much energy trying to create fair competition, which is impossible. It is the competitive order itself that should be tackled, particularly the way status differentials in higher education, feeding the continuous jousting, undermine the commons.

In the absence of a whole of society tradition like Confucianism, we locate ‘public’ in higher education and elsewhere in an imaginary space regulated by the nation-state. Collective democratic forms are aligned to the legal boundaries of sovereign nations. Hence terms like ‘public sector’, ‘public interest’, the ‘public service’, ‘democratic public education’ and so on. When we use the term ‘public’ here we mean not just the collective interest, but the nation. The public good is what we expect the nation to do, on a good day at least.

But ‘good’ does not stop at the border. The world is interdependent. Problems of ecology, food, water, energy and epidemic disease, not to mention financial flows and global inequality, ram home that message daily. Knowledge, our stock in trade, moves freely shared across national borders to the ends of the Earth without regard for states.

We need to define, discuss and regulate the common and collective global public good—in higher education and other sectors. But our inherited idea of ‘public’ needs to be fastened onto a state. And there is no global state.

We must break our imagined dependence on states as the source of the collective, of global public goods. Because knowledge lends itself to global flows, in a knowledge-intensive age, research universities have already become important creators of global goods—though this is under-recognised. There is collaborative research on global problems: climate change, water, food, epidemic disease.

How might we advance the creation of global public goods in and through higher education? Let us first identify the challenges. The larger enemy of the public good and public sphere is not the economic market, but the status hierarchy. Global rankings have caught all universities, all over the world, in the same status incentive trap.

Status competition plays out not only between universities but between national systems, ranking them vertically on the world scale and confirming the dominance of the comprehensive Anglo-American science university. It narrows the diversity of knowledge that secures global value, through which public goods are created. Global public knowledge goods in English rate. Global public knowledge goods in Hungarian are off the page.

We need to evolve a new imaginary of higher education, alongside the economic market, status competition, and networks and flows. The global public goods ideal. Global public good must be grounded in a vision which secures consent, shapes mentalities and governs practices. An aspiration for the university that connects to the knowledge-bearing functions, especially research and public information, while grounded in local, national and cross-border constituencies.

This suggests a post-national approach to creating global public goods. The global public space lies mostly outside direct governance, in collaborative networks, NGOs, cyber-space. Here higher education is helping to build global society. We need to break out of the iron-bound national-level struggles over public good and private interest in higher education.

It means not abandoning the nation, but positioning it in something larger. If nations and their cultures want to shape global society, they must become global to do it. Some will say it is a tall order to expect universities to behave this way. But that is a symptom of the malaise. Not a sign it is impossible to overcome.

Universities have lost rationale, and need to reground themselves in the social. They will need to find the way to visibly create global public goods, if they are not to follow the Tudor Monasteries.

This Foundation Essay is part of a series of articles to mark the launch of The Conversation. Others in the series are:

Better connecting the university to the public debate by Glyn Davis

When the science is so clear, why is the argument so clouded? By Ross Garnaut

A better formula for science communication By Peter Doherty

What’s the point of universities? It’s the ideas, stupid By Patrick McCaughey

The science of reporting climate change By Brian McNair

How universities learnt a lesson in humility — and are all the better for it By John Keane

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 174,500 academics and researchers from 4,804 institutions.

Register now