Fri, Jul 02, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Is academic freedom worth the price paid?

Universities may be the best performing products of long-term capital investment, in terms of social and economic investment

By Steve Fuller

Is academic freedom affordable in a time of economic crisis? That was the topic for discussion at the annual signing of the Magna Charta Universitatum at the mother of universities, the University of Bologna, earlier this year.

The Magna Charta is the world’s most visible statement of principles for the promotion and protection of university autonomy. Over the past two decades, nearly 700 institutions of higher education on every continent have signed it. Nevertheless, there remains a nagging sense that universities are luxuries now that ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet.

There has always been reason for concern. In the past, universities have been created in times of plenty, typically to encourage people to think beyond their immediate need for survival to more edifying spiritual or national goals. Nearly 50 years ago, a statistically minded historian of science, Derek de Solla Price, observed that the best indicator of academic research production is a nation’s energy consumption per capita: both grow together.

This is hardly surprising. From a strictly economic standpoint, academic freedom requires relative immunity to costs, whether stemming from trial-and-error experimentation or from more radical challenges to the status quo. But should universities now reduce their demands in order to meet the needs of the larger society, not least in terms of their carbon footprint?

If universities are to remain universities in the sense originally laid down by the Bolognese lawyers, the answer is no. Moreover, this is not an affront to economics. The efficiency savings of academia occur downstream from the activities of the universities themselves. Indeed, universities may be the most consistently performing products of long-term capital investment, especially if one is inclined to think about social and economic “investment” in exactly the same terms.

After all, the university’s unique institutional mission is to manufacture knowledge as a public good. The new knowledge produced by original research is an instance of social capital formation. It results from academics and funders collaborating on projects that aim to increase the competitive advantage of each in their respective domains.

Left at this stage, knowledge is simply intellectual property, access to which is restricted to paying customers. However, universities also have an institutional mandate to teach. This forces knowledge to be made more widely available, thereby breaking the effective monopoly that researchers and their funders would otherwise enjoy. Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase “creative destruction,” his definition of entrepreneurship, aptly describes this process.

Once teaching reduces, if not eliminates, the original competitive advantage associated with a piece of research, academics and their funders are forced to seek new sources of advantage by producing new knowledge. In the process, the larger public — those not involved in the original production of new knowledge — benefit through classroom instruction. In this sense, the heart of the university is located in its curriculum committee, as the mechanism by which research is regularly translated into teaching, generating new cycles of creative destruction.

Efficiency-minded knowledge managers nowadays say that the very idea of the university as a place where the same people produce and distribute knowledge is a throwback to the Middle Ages. Today, teaching is thus said to be more efficiently delivered online, and research best delivered through dedicated “science parks.”

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