Value of universities during economic crisis

by and

WARWICK, England — 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, science historian 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. But 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.

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.”

But while the sense of “efficiency” that attracted the mendicant Christian orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, to staff the original universities was rather different, it is no less relevant today. The Dominicans and Franciscans literally lived by begging — by depending on diverse sources of income, whose return to any particular investor was always unclear. The autonomy of these orders rested on a proven long-term ability to do more than expected with what they were given.

The Latin word for this ability was povertas, or “poverty” in English. While the word does not retain its original virtuous connotations, we still warm to the virtuosity of “doing more with less.” In the case of the university, this means allowing access to knowledge to students who lack the intellectual, political or financial resources that might have enabled them to produce it for themselves. Universities perform their natural economic function when academics speak and write plainly, demystify jargon, present their ideas in alternative media and stress applications to domains that do not concern the academics themselves.

In these ways, academics enable knowledge to do maximum work at minimal cost to its recipients. In short, universities prove their worth if students find it easier to appropriate academic knowledge than the academics themselves originally did.

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of “The Knowledge Book: Key Concepts in Philosophy, Science and Culture.” © 2010 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences