What are universities for? Not innovation, say some of Europe’s leading institutions

23 Sep 2008 | News
Universities are viewed as crucial national assets. But their real value is not in fostering innovation and economic development but in teaching us how to think, according to a new report.

Universities are viewed as crucial national assets. But their real value is not in fostering innovation and economic development but in teaching us how to think, according to the League of European Research Universities (LERU) in a paper that warns of the dangers of loose thinking about the role of the universities.

In the paper, “What are universities for?” authors Geoffrey Boulton and Colin Lucas call for a reinforced understanding of the fundamental role of the university.

Western universities have been remarkably successful as breeding grounds for creative people, new knowledge and great ideas, and as the principal locations for national research bases.

And in continually supplying the innovative energies and instincts that are so fundamental to our future in the 21st century, universities have lead the way in addressing the complex challenges of today’s national and global societies.

These enduring elements of success explain why, in a global economy, universities are now regarded as crucial national assets. “Unfortunately, they have also lead to a certain amount of loose thinking about the roles that universities can play in society, whilst obscuring their most important contributions to it,” say the authors

Building the ability to think

So what exactly is the core of the university’s offer to society? Generation by generation, universities guide their students in developing the ability to think for themselves, to seek understanding through the classic disciplines of research, analysis and rational argument supported by evidence.

They teach their scholars to question interpretations, to reduce the chaos of information and to concentrate on what is relevant to the resolution of a problem, according to LERU, an association of 20 of Europe’s leading research-intensive universities. All claim to share the values of high quality teaching within an environment of internationally competitive research.

These are qualities that every society needs in its citizens, and ones that universities seek to invigorate. When leavened by deep technical understanding, these qualities ensure an annual influx into society of skilled and creative graduates who continually refresh its technical excellence and its economic, social and cultural vitality.

They also give birth to many of the skills prized by governments such as entrepreneurship, managerial capacity, leadership, vision, teamwork, adaptability and the effective application of specific technologies.

 These human capacities are the universities’ most fundamental contributions to society. “It is in their creative, free-thinking mode that universities are such a vital resource for the future,” says Boulton. “Basic research that invigorates teaching by probing the limits of understanding is the vital fuel for the university engine. It is a fundamental transferable skill which can be applied to a wide range of circumstances and phenomena.”

The attractions of the supermarket

Many governments appear to regard the university sector as no more than a supermarket for a variety of public and private goods currently in demand. One of the goods currently most prized is the supposed role of universities as engines of innovation and economic development.

But where as universities help to create an environment sympathetic to, and supportive of, innovation, particularly where it is associated with high quality and internationally competitive research, innovation itself is predominantly a process of business engagement with markets in which universities can only play a minor role.

Direct commercialisation activities do not, even in the US, contribute significantly to GNP.

The bedrock for all this potential remains the university’s commitment to education in the deepest sense – to its exploration of the limits of human understanding. While the narrow view of tertiary education frequently concentrates on science and technology, it is the humanities and social sciences that are more and more fundamental to the smooth functioning of complex societies.

“The humanities and social sciences are concerned with issues that are essential to stability, good order, creativity and inspiration in society,” says Lucas. “They provide understanding of why and how we express ourselves differently, as well as how we differ as individuals, groups and cultures. These are the disciplines that provide crucial support for civic virtues and open, accessible government”

A challenge for government – and for higher education

It is the totality of the university enterprise that is important, not only the part that a government department is willing to pay for. Human society is not separable in the way that some governments would like to support specific policy actions. It is a complex interacting whole, which needs to be understood as a whole.

The challenge for universities is to articulate clearly what they stand for, speak truth to authority and be steadfast in upholding their freedom and autonomy as crucial values to safeguard societies’ future. The challenge for governments is to recognise and support these values with appropriate mechanisms of accountability that don’t undermine universities’ effectiveness.

Requiring the universities simply to respond to short-term policy priorities is a doomed attempt to measure intangible effects by unyielding metrics. It can deliver only a single result– eventual disillusion, conclude the authors.

Geoffrey Boulton is Vice Principal and Regius Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at Edinburgh University and Colin Lucas is Warden of Rhodes House and former Vice Chancellor of Oxford University.

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