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In 2008 acclaimed geoscientist Geoffrey Boulton and Oxford historian Colin Lucas authored a paper in which they drew attention to a worrying trend within the university landscape. Titled ‘What are universities for’, the paper contests the growing belief that universities have a major and direct economic benefit and are national weapons in the battle for economic supremacy. This view, the authors argue, threatens to undermine the important purpose that universities serve in society at large.

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Austin Kirk (Flickr)

Fast forward to 2015 and the debate about the nature of universities still rages on. For most  governments universities are the fulcrum of the much vaunted knowledge-based economy and primary drivers of innovation and economic growth. This view of universities as short-term producers of innovation and knowledge is also increasingly becoming entrenched in society, where universities are expected to fulfil a very direct and very visible function. ‘There are many different opinions about the function of universities’, says Boulton, Regius Emeritus Professor of the University of Edinburgh. ‘When you boil all of these down, the purpose of universities is quite simple: they are places dedicated to the pursuit and dissemination of understanding.’ According to Boulton, this primary purpose feeds all of the secondary functions like the acquisition of skills and contribution to innovation. ‘The real challenge is how to ensure a university’s fundamental purpose is served in a way that its secondary objectives can also be attained.’

This primary purpose, however, is in danger of being eroded by this narrow view, says Boulton. ‘One of the most obvious drivers of university policy in recent years has been the wish to create a research university that performs powerfully, just like MIT, and which primarily contributes to a competitive economy. This both misunderstands the role of MIT and, like all obsessions, such a single-minded focus on what universities ought to be has lots of dangers, one of which is that it undermines the fundamental primary purpose, which is the engine of all the secondary benefits of a university. If this dies, all of the secondary benefits go with it. To ensure this doesn’t happen will require a difficult dialogue between governments and universities.’

Public accountability

Although the value that universities create for society is not well understood in many governing circles, the demand for greater accountability among universities about the use of public resources is something Boulton readily agrees with. ‘I think accountability in the public domain is vital. The question, however, is accountable for what? Unless you have a clear view of what it is you are trying to do, you cannot identify those things that can be measured and which form the basis of accountability.’ One of the major problems with how universities seek to be accountable, Boulton believes, is that too much emphasis is placed on the immediate relevance of research, with universities themselves often over-emphasising this. ‘Much of the research we do has very little immediate relevance. It’s about preparing and creating the knowledge that is going to be important for a long-term future – a future we do not know, hence we cannot know what knowledge will need to be created.’

In their attempts to be accountable, universities have also mistakenly come to assume that its fundamental output – the way in which its research finds its way into the public domain and creates value – is through research papers, patents and licensing, says Boulton. ‘The principal way in which the knowledge created by universities reaches society is through its graduates. They are the prime vectors by which knowledge is spread. We should therefore think more profoundly about what we do with our students. As for what the public expects of the university, I suspect that if you ask most taxpayers they will tell you they want universities to give their sons and daughters a good and satisfying education, so that they can find a good and satisfying job and live a good and satisfying life.’  According to Boulton, the mistaken belief that taxpayers primarily judge universities on their research output can partly be attributed to ‘an unholy alliance between senior civil servants and us senior university managers in promoting the view that there is a metric to evaluate the utility of the university in contributing to the stock of knowledge. I’m very sceptical this is the case”.

Besides calling for a rethink of the role of universities, Boulton also questions the belief, in certain quarters, that universities should adopt more market mechanisms in the way they are managed. ‘I suspect that when people talk about market mechanisms, what they are actually talking about is employing corporate modes of governance. The corporate model of governance is top-down and is one which priorities, processes and objectives are set at the top and executed at the lower levels. Universities, on the other hand, have been largely successful because of a traditional mode of governance, in which bottom-up contributions have ensured that the creativity and range of knowledge of the whole academic community is fully utilised.’ Boulton believes there are powerful reasons to argue that such a traditional structure is better suited to universities. ‘It is wrong to suppose that corporate governance is the only game in town. One just needs to look at the recent global financial crisis to see its faults and problems: little accountability, senior managers being powers unto themselves, a lack of transparency and so forth.’

A place for the humanities?

One consequence, perhaps unintended, of policy-makers’ decision to prioritise research and innovation has been the steady relegation of the humanities to the margins of academia. Whereas the liberal arts have always been a cornerstone of traditional university education, many humanities disciplines have of late seen themselves confronted with a toxic brew  of decreased funding and lower student enrolments. It would seem that for many policymakers and administrators the humanities have little relevance in the 21st century. An egregious error, says Boulton. ‘The idea that there is a direct and simple line between research products and GDP is based on a thoroughly erroneous analysis. If you believe this, then the next assumption is that subject areas like the natural sciences, engineering and medicine are the means by which such GDP increments will be achieved. It’s wrong. It’s mistaken. It simply isn’t true.’

A more pernicious effect of such reasoning, Boulton argues, is that children are persuaded to believe that it is more important to study science and medicine because these are the supposed backbone of the economy and will increase their prospects of employment. ‘In doing so, we ignore the total gamut of human activity, emotion, understanding and learning, and instead push our students into a very narrow range of disciplines – a range in which many are going to be failures. Human talents are more diverse. To say therefore that there is only one form of human understanding that matters, and that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it is somehow a failure, is a perversion. Such thinking undermines the lives of our children and society.’  

But do the humanities still have a place in the 21st century? ‘If you were to tell me that the only things that matter are higher GDP and growing the economy, I would feel sorry for you. Major issues that concern us society are war, violence, conflict, about which the humanities have a great deal to say. We need people with a deeper understanding of such issues, now and in the future.’ 

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Professor Geoffrey Boulton will deliver the keynote address on the future of universities on Monday, 31 August 2015.