Have universities forgotten their purpose?

Of the many fierce debates provoked recently by the Australian Government’s controversial budget, none has been more intense than the furore over proposed cuts to higher education funding. But in all this palaver about the future of our universities, something fundamental is missing.

It’s an omission for which the Government can hardly be blamed, because academics themselves should take responsibility for leading public discussion of this topic and in Australia they have been generally silent. The thing that’s missing is a clear, cogent answer to a large but simple question: What is the distinctive purpose of universities today?

0003116_300A book published a few months ago typifies the inability of senior educators to get a grip on this question. Although it’s a competent analysis of the pressures and policy constraints that universities currently face in this country, its focus is almost entirely administrative. I’m referring to Raising the Stakes: Gambling with the Future of Universities, by Peter Coaldrake (Vice-Chancellor at Queensland University of Technology) and Lawrence Stedman (Principal Policy Adviser at QUT).

The business-like approach that Coaldrake and Stedman take in Raising the Stakes is the book’s strength but also its limitation. I don’t want to quarrel with anything in its pages; my concern is with what’s not there.

At the end of their concluding chapter the authors state that in the hard times ahead ‘individual institutions will need to…be more selective about the areas in which they can teach and research.’ Perhaps so – but on what basis should such decisions be made? Are there any principles that can establish whether some mooted new field of study belongs properly within a modern university or not? Coaldrake and Stedman don’t raise this question, let alone suggest an answer. Yet without a firm grasp of appropriate criteria, any decisions about what to teach and research, and how to go about it, are likely to be merely bureaucratic and pragmatic – even opportunistic, with scant regard for qualities that might differentiate university programs from those of a different kind of institution such as a polytechnic.

UnknownI suspect that some senior academic administrators couldn’t precisely articulate a cogent rationale for determining what their core activities should include or exclude.

One might hope to find this point illuminated in Stefan Collini’s book What Are Universities For? Collini, a Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University, was guest speaker at a recent forum on a related topic organised by the University of Sydney – which deserves plaudits for publicly airing such questions at a time when most institutions are not.

I couldn’t cross the continent to attend the Sydney forum, but to judge from Collini’s book I doubt that I’d have found his views entirely satisfying. In What Are Universities For? his focus is on the modern British university, which he regards as ‘a marriage of convenience between a type of school and a research laboratory.’ In his opinion it has marginalised the humanities (e.g. literary studies) by a narrow emphasis on useful outcomes. There’s some truth in this observation, which he expands into a lively polemic. But he doesn’t seem able to explain clearly the philosophical principles and historical foundations on which a more satisfactory concept of academic purpose should be based. In a review of Collini’s book, Peter Conrad’s verdict is that it’s ‘heavy on hand-ringing and light on real answers.’

How then should an institution decide whether a particular area of knowledge and practice has the intellectual credentials or community benefits to constitute an academic discipline? Would a principled university welcome a generous offer from a private citizen or an industrial sponsor to fund a program in (say) stamp-collecting, astrology or hairdressing? If not, why not?

In the past I’ve made public my own thoughts about these matters. I’ve argued that a field of enquiry can claim a legitimate place in the modern university only if it fulfils four functional requirements, all historically based. Three of them relate to ‘the public good’ and so they are functions that government agencies can legitimately monitor (but not control):

  • a capacity to advance knowledge through disinterested investigation;
  • a capacity to be socially useful through application to material needs;
  • a capacity to enhance cultural awareness through creative and critical enquiry.

The fourth requisite function may not interest government inspectors or other external stake-holders and yardstick-wielders, but it does concern the intrinsic intellectual quality of the particular field in question. It’s just this:

  • a capacity to subject itself to rigorous and principled self-scrutiny.


If it can do this (in balance with the other three functions), continually re-evaluating its own philosophical rationale and professional practice, it’s worthy of being supported as an academic discipline.

My book Higher Education or Education for Hire attempts to analyse some implications of those requirements, and more generally to uncover values implicit in the language that Australian higher education uses to characterise its activities. Since I wrote it the political environment may have changed a bit, but I remain convinced that universities cannot deal properly with the pressure of external circumstances unless they can communicate a clear understanding of their distinctive purpose.

4 thoughts on “Have universities forgotten their purpose?

  1. I am glad to see this question being raised. Although I have not read the books mentioned, I have watched universities change immensely over the last 40 years.
    To me, the purpose of university is to advance and disseminate knowledge, and not to provide fodder for any particular profession or area. Thanks for the blog, Ian.

  2. Hi Ian
    The corporate direction being taken by universities concerns me too, because I always (romantically) considered them the place for intelligent and in-depth exploration of ideas and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Where can people come together to do this now? Sounds like a gap in the market is being created!

  3. Thanks Pat, Glen and Iris for responding. (I’ve been on the road for a few days, away from computers, so just caught up with your interesting comments.) I think our dissatisfactions with the way universities are changing ought to be put in a political and historical context. The process of corporatising higher education hasn’t been imposed arbitrarily by a few managerialists with a perverse disregard for the things we value. Rather, it’s an inevitable consequence of the massive expansion of student places. In the days when relatively small numbers went on from school to tertiary institutions, government funding could cover the costs; but once the political decision was made to open the gates much wider, universities needed to operate more like businesses in order to pay the bills (with more buildings and technical infrastructure, more staff etc etc). So fees keep increasing, everything gets bigger, legislative compliance becomes more onerous, management expands to cope with the administrative complexity, and so on. The simple pursuit of knowledge belongs to the era when higher education was an elite activity conducted in small academic communities. And there’s the rub, because most of us see the social benefits of having more and more of our fellow citizens engaged in academic studies, and wouldn’t want to turn back the clock to the days of restriction and privilege. And yet… Anyway, it’s a big dilemma. Iris asks where people can come together nowadays to explore ideas for their own sake, and it’s hard to find an answer. For me, the peak experience of that kind of advanced learning community was among postgraduate students in the top American universities, e.g. Cornell – but they were very select groups, and perhaps things have changed for the worse since then, even there.

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