What are universities for?

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The League of European Research Universities (LERU) has just published a position paper on the question what universities are for. The LERU is a group of twenty European research universities (see the list; membership is by invitation only) that together seek to influence policy in Europe.

Their paper takes a strong stand against the new discourse of the primacy of direct economic benefit (well, new — according to René Boomkens, this discourse found its way into academia in the 1970s). Universities, they argue, are not supermarkets where you can order goods that are currently in demand and whose value is defined by their perceived financial value. To fund universities only by attempting to measure their output is to misunderstand what universities are for – they are not “a lever which, when pulled, will gush forth the tangible effects of economic prosperity” (§ 59), they are only one part of the process of producing a knowledge economy. If we base financial regulation only on those activities that provide output considered desirable within a short-term frame of reference, we run the risk of retaining our universities only in name. A university is a complex whole that can only function as a whole: “one cannot simply searate one element and say this is what we want and that is what we will pay for” (§ 61). The paper’s second, no less important point is that the humanities and the social sciences are as important as science and technology to the well-being of society, but stand to lose within the current short-term focus on output.

Below are key passages from the paper, which is available in full from the LERU website.

On output-based measurement of universities:

Indeed, whatever attention must necessarily be given to corporate effectiveness,universitties are not enterprises with a defined product with standardised processes required for its cost-effective production. (§ 7) […] It is important to remember that whaterver policy-driven demands are placed on universities and whatever the desire to mandate particular outcomes, the space of university endeavour is essentially one where discoveries cannot be determined in advance and where the consequences of the encounter between a mind, a problem and evidence, and between the minds of successive different generations are profoundly and marvellously unpredictable. They are the very conditions of creativity. (§8) […] We believe that the general attitudes that underlie such government policies are based on some serious misunderstandings. (§14)

On ‘useful knowledge’:

We do not concur with the increasing assumption that useful knowledge is only that immediate knowledge which forms the basis for the technologies and skills believed to be crucial for economic success. Useful knowledge, and the skills that go with it, are derivative from a deeper capability that is insufficiently credited by government, and often relinquished for shallower perceptions of utility by the very academics who should most cherish it. (§27) […] We argue that in practice, many of the qualities that governments prize in universities are by-products of deeper functions of the university. If those functions are undermined, the rest will also fail. (§ 28)

On the humanities and social sciences:

Government policies for universities, particularly in research, too frequently concentrate on science, technology and medicine, with a perfunctory nod towards the humanities and social sciences that implicitly undervalues their importance for society. (§49) […] Many major contemporary issues, the introduction of novel and disruptive technologies, policies for health, education 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. (§53)

On university governance:

It is crucial that rectors and university governing boards understand this essential source of institutional strength, that they are 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. (§56)

From the conclusion:

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 aggregate financial value. We assert that they have a deeper, fundamental role that permits them to adapt and respond to the changing values and needs of successive generations, and from which the outputs cherished by governments are but secondary derivatives. To define the university enterprise by these specific outputs, and to fund it only through metrics that measure them, is to misunderstand the nature of the enterprise and its potential to deliver social benefit. (§ 62)

See also this Times Higher Education article (and the comments!)

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