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What are the functions of the modern university? 7 answers for the government review

It’s no secret New Zealand universities are at a crossroads. Financial constraints, a post-COVID hangover and sweeping staff layoffs have all made for testing times in the tertiary world.

So the government’s appointment of a University Advisory Group to “consider challenges and opportunities for improvement in the university sector” is more than timely.

The group is charged with assessing the financial challenges facing universities, their overall performance, and whether different funding models would help achieve better outcomes.

Public submissions have now closed. It will be fascinating to see the answers to the first and perhaps most important question on the submissions form: “What should be the primary functions of universities for a contemporary world?”

There is, of course, no single definitive answer. But there are several working definitions that might help. These often overlap and are sometimes contradictory. The challenge will be to find the right balance between the seven outlined below.

1. Driver of economic and social development

This is a common understanding of a university’s role: as well as teaching the next generation of professionals, university research drives technological development and economic growth.

For example, the foundation of Canterbury College (later to become the university) was informed by the economic and social needs of a newly established colonial settlement. This role is compatible with an understanding of the university as a job factory (see below).

Governments regularly provide funding to universities to meet training and employment goals, such as the current plan to fund a new medical school at Waikato University.

2. Promoter of equity

The motto of Waikato University – Ko Te Tangata (For the People) – clearly states what (or who) a university is for. It offers employment opportunities that should not be restricted to a small minority.

While you are still ten times more likely to go to university if your parents also went to university, over the second half of the 20th century New Zealand radically increased participation in university education.

In turn, however, allowing more students to enrol has raised concerns about the risk of lowering academic and teaching standards.

For the people: the University of Waikato motto states what and who it is for. Getty Images

3. Profit-making business

With a 20% decline in government funding since 2012, universities have been forced to act as businesses. Shifting to a user-pays funding model means they are selling a product (education) to individual consumers (students).

Furthermore, free market reforms in the 1980s and 1990s largely deregulated tertiary education. This left universities competing with each other in a marketplace.

The importance of university rankings, student recruitment marketing and student experience all flow from this business model. This aligns with another possible function of the university as preserving status and privilege (see below).

Certain institutions and degrees have always been markers of status for those who can afford them. This perception clearly underpins some arguments against taxpayer funding.

4. Job factory

Another stated purpose of the university is that it exists to reduce unemployment by training people for work (or at least removing them from unemployment statistics while they study).

A university’s success is measured by how employable its graduates are. This then feeds into criticism of certain degrees (usually in the “softer” humanities subjects) producing “unemployable” graduates.

This view dovetails in some ways with the understanding of universities as drivers of national development (see below).

5. Incubator of intellectual inquiry and knowledge

According to the Education Act 1998:

a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning […]

John Macmillan Brown.

A university fulfils this role through valuable research, free intellectual debate and the creation of good citizens. This purpose can be seen to be threatened by the shift towards the business or job factory models (see above).

This view of the university’s function also conflicts with the view they should be drivers of economic and social development (see above), which goes back to the country’s colonial origins.

In the words of John Macmillan Brown, one of three founding professors of Canterbury College:

God help me, what would be the good of Greek verse for pioneers in a new colony?

6. Preserver of status and privilege

Elite universities have always offered their graduates enhanced social connections and employment opportunities. They increasingly cloak their status (justifiably or not) in the language of educational meritocracy, measured in university rankings and successful alumni.

Their advertised role as incubators of intellectual inquiry and knowledge complements their other identities as job factory and for-profit business because only the wealthiest customers can afford the products they are selling.

But this is clearly in direct conflict with the understanding of universities as promoters of equity.

7. Social critic and instigator of revolutionary change

There is a long history of universities filling the role of “critic and conscience of society”, which generally complements those of promoter of equity and incubator of intellectual inquiry and knowledge.

At the same time, criticisms of universities as elitist ivory towers also have a long history.

Nonetheless, instigating social change extends beyond campus protests and “culture wars” to include research, social commentary and revolutionary technological developments such as the internet and artificial intelligence.

Finally, all universities have to balance some or all of these purposes, whether complementary or contradictory. The answer to the University Advisory Group’s first question is not straightforward. Any useful answer lies in some mix of these various options.

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