University and Research

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Universities, governments and industry: Can the essential nature of universities survive the drive to commercialize? Simon N. Young
Author information ► Article notes ► Copyright and License information ► Having spent 40 years in universities, I have had sufficient time to consider some of the idiosyncrasies, foibles and problems of these academic institutions. The purpose of this editorial is to discuss the current state of university research and explain why I find some aspects of the current situation disturbing. Changes that started during the second half of the 20th century and that have continued into the 21st threaten to bring about fundamental changes in the nature of universities. Some of the changes are commendable, for example, the large expansion in the proportion of the population attending universities, at least in the richer nations. Other trends are disturbing, especially the increasing tendency of governments and industry to view universities as engines for short-term economic gain. While universities certainly cannot ignore the context in which they function and the needs of society, responding purely to short-term economic considerations threatens to subvert the very nature of universities and some of the benefits they provide to society. So what exactly is a university and what is its purpose? I much prefer the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word “university” to some of the more utilitarian definitions in other dictionaries. The Oxford definition reads, in part, “whole body of teachers and scholars engaged in the higher branches of learning.” Thus, it is the community of faculty and students that is the essence of a university. The higher branches of learning in which teachers and scholars engage have 2 important products: the educated minds that are essential for the well-being of society, and new knowledge and ideas. Some of that new knowledge will enrich society by producing economic growth, directly or indirectly, but the benefits of new knowledge go far beyond economic gain. Universities have always been subjected to outside influences. The oldest European university, the University of Bologna, has existed at least since the 1080s. Some time before 1222, about 1000 students left Bologna and founded a new university in Padua because of “the grievous offence that was brought to bear on their academic liberties and the failure to acknowledge the privileges solemnly granted to teachers and students.”1 The outside interference came from the Roman Catholic Church, and, for several centuries, Padua was home to the only university in Europe where non-Catholics could get a university education. Both Bologna and Padua were student-controlled universities with students electing the professors and fixing their salaries. However, in spite of marked differences, there are similarities between what happened then and what is happening today, with important outside influences — then the dogma of religion, now the dogma of business — threatening to change the activities of the community of teachers and scholars. The seeds of what is happening now were sown in the years following World War II. Before the war the most important influence on a faculty member was probably the departmental chair, who in those days had power to influence in an important way what went on in the department. Nonetheless, a faculty member would have had access to departmental resources and would not necessarily have required outside research funding (although such funding was sometimes available from private foundations). The mechanism of funding research, and the amount of money available for research, changed greatly in the postwar years. In 1945, Vannevar Bush's landmark report to President Harry Truman, Science the Endless Frontier,2 had an important influence on university research. In this report, Bush stated, “The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic...
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