You are on page 1of 19

What are universities for?

Geoffrey Boulton and Colin Lucas

September 2008

• Amsterdam • Cambridge • Edinburgh • Freiburg • Genève • Heidelberg • Helsinki • Leiden

• Leuven • University College London • Lund • Milan • LMU München • Oxford • UPMC Paris 6 • Paris-Sud
• Karolinska, Stockholm • ULP Strasbourg • Utrecht • Zürich
LERU was founded in 2002 as an association of research-intensive universities sharing the
values of high-quality teaching in an environment of internationally competitive research.
The League is committed to: education through an awareness of the frontiers of human
understanding; the creation of new knowledge through basic research, which is the ulti-
mate source of innovation in society; the promotion of research across a broad front, which
creates a unique capacity to reconfigure activities in response to new opportunities and
problems. The purpose of the League is to advocate these values, to influence policy in
Europe and to develop best practice through mutual exchange of experience.

Geoffrey Boulton FRS, FRSE, is Vice Principal and Regius Professor of Geology and Mineralogy in
the University of Edinburgh.
Sir Colin Lucas is Warden of Rhodes House and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Doctoral studies in Europe: excellence in researcher training

What are universities for?


1. “A University is a place … whither students come from 3. The perceptions of Newman and Humboldt have dom-
every quarter for every kind of knowledge; … a place inated western thinking about the functions of universi-
for the communication and circulation of thought, by ties. They are represented to different extents and in
means of personal intercourse. … It is the place to different ways in the objectives and structures of the
which a thousand schools make contributions; in comprehensive research universities of Europe. They
which the intellect may safely range and speculate. It are sometimes considered to be antithetical, implying
is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, … discov- that the ethos of specialised research is in tension with
eries verified and perfected, and … error exposed, by the liberal education of an informed and critical citizen.
the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with That may simply be a reflection of the openness to con-
knowledge. … Mutual education, in a large sense of tradiction that is part of the genius of the university. For
the word, is one of the great and incessant occupa- our part, we see them as complementary and the west-
tions of human society. … One generation forms anoth- ern comprehensive university to be in many ways the
er. … We must consult the living man and listen to his fusion of the two. Thus, Newman’s “discoveries verified
living voice, … by familiar intercourse … to adjust and perfected and error exposed by the collision of
together the claims and relations of their respective mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge” is a
subjects of investigation. Thus is created a pure and powerful basis for Humboldt’s search for new knowl-
clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also edge through research. Equally, to consult “the living
breathes.” So wrote John Henry Newman in The Idea man and listen to his living voice” emphasises the
of a University in 1852.1 virtue of tuition by researchers who, with first-hand
rather than second-hand knowledge, are best able to
2. Some 40 years earlier, in 1810, Wilhelm von Humboldt penetrate with their students the complex tangle in
wrote a memorandum2 that led to the creation of the which true knowledge often lies.
University of Berlin. He envisaged a university based on
three principles: unity of research and teaching, freedom
of teaching and academic self-governance. The first THE SUCCESS OF THE WESTERN UNI-
was critical both of research divorced from teaching, VERSITY MODEL
undertaken by private scholars or in separate research
institutes, without the stimulation of sharing those inves- 4. The “western” university based on Newman’s and
tigations with young minds, and of higher education Humboldt’s principles has been remarkably success-
divorced from original enquiry. The second, Freiheit der ful. It has provided an almost universal model for high-
Lehre und des Lernens, was that pro- er education. The highly interac-
fessors should be free to teach in The “western” university tive social setting and opera-
accordance with their studiously and tional freedom of such universi-
has provided an almost
rationally based convictions. The third ties has stimulated a creativity
principle, of academic self-government, universal model for higher that has made them one of the
only implicit in Humboldt’s memo but education. great entrepreneurial centres of
increasingly apparent as an integral the modern world. They are one
component of his vision, was meant to protect academ- of the fundamental agents that have made that world
ic work from the distortions of government control. possible. Their capacities have been such that not

1 Newman, J.H. The idea of the University. Notre Dame University Press. 1852.
2 Humboldt, W. von. Über die innere und aeussere Organisation der hoeheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten in Berlin. (1810). In Leitzmann et al., eds.,
Wilhelm von Humboldts Gesammelte Schriften. Band X. Berlin 1903–35.

only has their historical commitment to education and what serves the broadest purpose of rendering the
scholarship flourished and deepened, but they have human condition and the world we live in coherent to
absorbed in the last 40 years a massive increase in us; and it is also partly the preparation of what we do
student numbers. They have been widely emulated not yet know to be useful knowledge.
and arguably are sources of radical thought and social
progress in societies where they have been intro- 7. There is no doubt that universities have been remark-
duced. In many countries they have also become the ably successful in this, as is shown by the degree to
principal locations for the national research base, and which contemporary governments and societies pay
have led the way in developing the cross-disciplinary them so much attention. Nonetheless, as we shall
concepts that are increasingly vital if we are to address argue, the conditions of that success are quite specif-
many of the complex challenges to national and global ic. Indeed, whatever attention must necessarily be
societies. given to corporate effectiveness, universities are not
enterprises with a defined product with standardised
5. Indeed, this flexibility and adaptability have become processes required for its cost-effective production.
the hallmarks of universities. They are testimony both Universities generate a wide diversity of outputs. In
to a dynamic process of engagement in the pursuit research, they create new possibilities; in teaching,
and explanation of knowledge and to a sensitivity to they shape new people. The two interact powerfully to
the needs of the contemporary world and to the prob- generate emergent capacities that are adapted to the
lems that preoccupy it. Universities operate on a com- needs of the times, embodying and creating the
plex set of mutually sustaining fronts – they research potential for progress through the ideas and the peo-
into the most theoretical and intractable uncertainties ple that will both respond to and shape an as yet
of knowledge and yet also seek the practical applica- unknown future.
tion of discovery; they test, reinvigorate and carry for-
ward the inherited knowledge of earlier generations; 8. It is important to remember that whatever policy-driv-
they seek to establish sound principles of reasoning en demands are placed on universities and whatever
and action which they teach to generations of stu- the desire to mandate particular outcomes, the space
dents. Thus, universities operate on both the short of university endeavour is essentially one where dis-
and the long horizon. On the coveries cannot be determined in advance and where
In research, one hand, they train students the consequences of the encounter between minds,
to go out into the world with between a mind, a problem and evidence, and
universities create
both general and specific between the minds of successive different genera-
new possibilities; in skills necessary to the well- tions are profoundly and marvellously unpredictable.
teaching, they being of society; they work They are the very conditions of creativity.
with contemporary problems
shape new people. and they render appropriate
the discoveries and under- A CHANGING WORLD
standing that they generate. On the other hand, they
forage in realms of abstraction and domains of 9. These enduring elements of success explain why, in
enquiry that may not appear immediately relevant to the world of globalisation, universities are now regard-
others, but have the proven potential to yield great ed as crucial national assets. Governments worldwide
future benefit. see them as vital sources of new knowledge and inno-
vative thinking, as providers of skilled personnel and
6. If we may borrow a phrase from the founders of the credible credentials, as contributors to innovation, as
American Philosophical Society3, universities are con- attractors of international talent and business invest-
cerned to create and transmit “useful knowledge”. ment into a region, as agents of social justice and
Inescapably, the definition of useful knowledge is rel- mobility, and as contributors to social and cultural
ative: it is partly what is practically useful; it is partly vitality.

3 The American Philosophical Society was set up in 1743 as the “American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for the promotion of
useful knowledge”.

What are universities for?

10. It is not surprising therefore that universities have ate gratification of the marketplace.
moved from the periphery to the centre of government
agendas. Governments around the world have invest- 13. Indeed, what is striking is that the realisation of the
ed heavily in universities and made demands upon importance of universities in the context of globalisa-
them about objectives and even the processes used tion has brought governments of most of the major
to attain them. The European Union serves as an economies (other than the USA where other mecha-
example: it has promoted a “modernisation agenda” nisms operate7) to seek to regulate and stimulate uni-
for university reform “as a core condition for the suc- versities in order to make them instruments of social
cess of the broader Lisbon Strategy4 to make the and economic public policy. Broadly speaking, public
European Union “the most dynamic and competitive policy sees universities as vectors of the contempo-
knowledge-based economy in the world”5. The rary skilling of an increasing segment of the popula-
European Commission has defined the role of univer- tion and as providers of innovation that can be trans-
sities as to exploit the so-called “knowledge triangle lated into advantage in a fast changing global eco-
of research, education and innovation”6, and has set nomic environment. This involves the use of regulation
about creating its own university, the European and incentives (especially financial) to obtain forms of
Institute of Innovation and Technology, to demon- behaviour in universities that provide outcomes
strate how these objectives should be addressed. defined as desirable within this short-term frame of
11. Thus, over the last decade or so there has been firmly
established among governments around the world the 14. Public policy implies the engagement of universities in
view that high quality, internationally competitive the contemporary concerns and objectives of their
research and higher education, mostly contained with- societies. We recognise that as both necessary and
in universities, are prerequisites for long-term success welcome. Public policy acknowledges the potential
in globalised knowledge economies. These are percep- for the creativity of universities to benefit the econo-
tions that drive the policy debate in Europe and else- my. We recognise the validity of that premise.
where about how university systems can affordably However, the contention of this paper is that such
embrace both research universities capable of vying public policy needs to be moderated by a better
with the world’s best, and provide higher education for understanding of the broader function of universities.
a large proportion of the rising generation. We believe that the general attitudes that underlie
such government policies are based on some serious
12. This policy preoccupation with the immediate chal- misunderstandings. It is crucial that the true role of
lenges of a world in transition has led to a growing ten- universities in modern societies and the relationships
dency to see universities as sources of between means and ends are under-
highly specific benefits. This means in There is a growing stood before mechanisms to promote
particular that they are (or should be) change are put in place. Indeed, there
tendency to see
sources of marketable commodities for is a danger that the current approach to
their customers, be they students, universities as universities is undermining the very
business or the state. There are injunc- sources of highly processes that are the source of those
tions to redesign or repackage and sell benefits so cherished by government. It
their products in response to shifting
specific, marketable may staunch the universities’ capaci-
consumer priorities and to the immedi- commodities. ties to look beyond today’s concerns in

4 Delivering on the modernisation agenda for universities: education, research and innovation. European Commission. COM (2006) 208.
5 Facing the challenge: the Lisbon strategy for growth and employment. Report from the High Level Group chaired by Wim Kok. European Commission.
November 2004.
6 The European Research Area: new perspectives. European Commission. COM (2007) 161.
7 Duderstadt, J. J. “In the U.S., focused efforts by federal or state governments to utilize higher education to address particular near term priorities are
less influential. While the cacophony of demands from the highly diverse stakeholders attempting to influence American higher education can be a
headache for university leaders and governing boards, there is a moderating effect on the dominance of any particular agenda from the diversity of
funding sources. Furthermore, the intensely competitive higher education marketplace in the U.S. in which faculty, students, and resources move eas-
ily from one institution to another has a self-correcting effect. If some institutions lose their way and become too focused on an agenda too far removed
from their core academic competence, they will quickly lose faculty, students, and eventually reputation”. Personal communication. April 2008.

order to prepare the thoughts and the ideas that the investment has indeed allowed a great upsurge in both
future will need. Ultimately, they would be left as univer- the volume and the quality of science research. It is
sities only in name. important for us to recognise here the substantial
progress that has occurred in this domain. Moreover, in
many universities there have been determined and
THE NEW DISCOURSE: THE PRIMACY effective developments in the application of new tech-
OF DIRECT ECONOMIC BENEFIT nologies derived from science research. There can be
no doubt that large state investment has triggered insti-
15. Increasingly, discussions about the organisation of tutional and individual creativity and the pursuit of more
research and indeed of the university system across ambitious objectives.
Europe have become dominated by analyses of the
ways in which they can best fulfil an immediate eco- 18. Nonetheless, we argue that these outcomes are the
nomic function8. But we should pause to consider by-products of a policy constructed on flawed prem-
whether both the end and the means to achieve it ises. Many governments have adopted a simplistic
have been correctly identified. reductionism in their perception of the connection
between universities and globalisation. Globalisation
16. The statements of government ministers, officials, is certainly the child of the breathtaking scientific and
funding agencies and research councils have in the technological advances that have created the devel-
last decade or so generally developed the following opments in communication whose rapidity and uni-
themes: versality have astonished the vast majority of people
• that the function of universities is to provide direct who do not understand the technology. Whether glob-
in-out benefits for society’s economic prosperity; alisation is the creation of this technology or simply
• that there is a direct relationship between university another version of the globalising tendency of nine-
applied research and economic prosperity through teenth-century imperialisms hardly matters. What pol-
the medium of scientific and technical innovation icy makers have seen is the power of technological
spreading into the economy; innovation and the threat of world economic reorder-
• that there is a high correlation between prosperity, ing that it poses. They have made a cursory connec-
social contentment and university research in sci- tion between technology and science and then
ence and technology; between science and the obvious place where public
• and, by implication, that universities have a primary money is spent on it – universities. It is on this basis
duty to engage in this socially useful activity in that policies of investing in university science with a
exchange for taxpayers’ support, and that research particularly public benefit in view have emerged.
should only be supported if it is in the immediate
national interest. 19. To our minds, all this has the curiously contradictory
The Chief Scientist of Australia recently epitomised character of a post-Cold War revision of the signifi-
such a view in his essay The Chance to Change 9 cance of universities coupled with a dose of national-
where he wrote of “the potential of universities to play ism. Universities – and more especially research-led
a central role as dynamos of universities – flourished in the
growth in the innovation It is crucial that the true role of Cold War as both sides sought
process and be huge genera- both technological superiority
universities is understood
tors of wealth creation”. and the demonstration that their
before mechanisms to promote values produced happier and
17. One direct consequence of change are put in place. more creative societies. After a
these perceptions has been the period of growing indifference
enormously increased investment in university sci- to universities as European communism failed in the
ence research by many governments in recent 1980s, globalisation produced a new need for techno-
decades. From the point of view of universities, this logical superiority and for the evidence of happier and

8 Globalisation of R&D: linking better the European economy to foreign sources of knowledge and making EU a more attractive place for R&D invest-
ment. Report from the Expert Group on Knowledge for Growth, D.Foray (rapporteur). European Commission. 2007.
9 Batterham, R. The Chance to Change. Canberra. 2000.

What are universities
Competitiveness, for? and the concept of a European Institute of Technology

more creative societies. The difference is that globali- sities in particular must Universities must
sation has produced anxiety about the performance be wary of simply
articulate more clear-
of national economies (as distinct from international accepting the premises
ideological systems) and happiness or quality of life is of that policy as a whole ly what they stand for,
now classified by governments as essentially the truth. They must have a and what their true
product of economic success. clear sense of their own
about what they stand
role in society is.
20. Indeed, it is a striking illustration of this point that the for and what their purpose is. They should not be
metaphor of global competition that reflects business rushed by a combination of inducements, urgency and
rivalries in liberalised markets has inspired the rheto- regulation into accepting an identity proffered them
ric of crisis that colours many appraisals of the per- from their ambient world, but they must engage with it
formance of Europe’s universities. As league table fol- to define a commonly accepted purpose. Even accept-
lows league table, they are pored over obsessively for ing the European Commission’s knowledge triangle of
signs of progress or decline. education – research – innovation, universities need to
provide their own answers to the questions: What sort
of education? What sort of research? And how do uni-
THE SEARCH FOR FUNCTION AND versities contribute to innovation, previously believed to
PURPOSE be the exclusive domain of private industry?

21. Of course, one can see why universities and agencies 23. The phrase “useful knowledge” tends to imply the
that connect with them have moulded themselves to immediately applicable. But today’s preoccupations
this vision of socially and economically relevant are inevitably myopic, often ephemeral, giving little
national objectives. On the one hand, the high level of thought for tomorrow. The ideas, thoughts and tech-
funding for university science research is irresistible. nologies that tomorrow will need or that will forge
This is not a base motive in the way that some high- tomorrow, are hid from us, and foresight exercises have
minded colleagues would have us believe. had a lamentable record of success in attempting to
Universities need money, as do scientists in pursuit of predict them. Just as the breathtaking pace of scientif-
ever more challenging research objectives and ever ic, technological and societal innovation has changed
more expensive means to pursue and is changing the way we live, in an
them. No university operates well in As league table follows unpredictable way, so will it in the future.
indigence. On the other hand, uni- league table, they are The universities in their creative, free-
versities are, and have always been, thinking mode are a vital resource for
products of their society, whatever pored over obsessively that future and an insurance against it.
the persistence of an academic dis- for signs of progress The policies being increasingly pressed
course of intellectual virginity. upon them implicitly assume a know-
or decline.
Universities are socially responsible able future or a static societal or eco-
and seek to improve the common good. Their percep- nomic frame. As Drew Faust has said, in her inaugural
tions and priorities change as those of their society address as President of Harvard10: “A university is not
change around them. Universities reconcile a tran- about results in the next quarter; it is not even about
scendent mission of establishing understanding of the who a student has become by graduation. It is about
true nature of things with a social mission of relevance learning that moulds a lifetime; learning that transmits
to their ambient population. This is not an easy task. the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the
What is attractive about current public policy for uni- future”.
versities is that it does appeal to universities’ desire
for relevance in their mission. 24. A university that moulds itself only to present
demands is one that is not listening to its historians.
22. Nonetheless, the contention of this paper is that the History is at its most illuminating when written with the
current emphasis of public policy about universities in full consciousness of what people wrongly expected
Europe and elsewhere is far from capturing the essen- to happen. Even in the domain of technology, future
tial reality of their function in society. Research univer- developments only a few years away have been

10 The Boston Globe. October 12, 2007.

The most useful knowledge
shrouded from contemporary eyes. Many, possibly general under- is that grounded in deep
most, have arisen unexpectedly from research with standing that is
understanding. It is often
other objectives, and assessments of technological broadly applica-
potential have invariably missed the mark. For exam- ble, such that a relinquished for shallower
ple, Roosevelt’s 1937 Commission to advise on the complex narra- perceptions of utility.
most likely innovations of the succeeding 30 years not tive in one gen-
only identified many unrealised technologies, but eration can be replaced by a simpler one in succeeding
missed nuclear energy, lasers, computers, xerox, jet generations. Basic research that compresses and gen-
engines, radar, sonar, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, eralises understanding in this way invigorates teaching
the genetic code and many more. Thirty years ago, that probes the limits of understanding. Together, they
scientists who studied climate change were regarded are the fuel for the university engine. Such generic
as harmless but irrelevant. But serendipitous invest- understanding also represents a fundamental “transfer-
ment in their work revealed processes that we now able skill” which can be applied to a much wider range
recognise as threatening the future of human society, of circumstances and phenomena than any catalogue
and the successors to those scientists are playing a of specific knowledge. It is a vital investment in the
crucial role in assessing how we need to adapt. future.
Francis Fukuyama’s 199211 claim of “The End of
History” was soon falsified as, within a decade, histo-
ry reinvented itself, gearing into fast-forward mode
with unanticipated transformations in economic prac- THE UNIVERSITY AND “USEFUL
tice, in social and religious experience and political KNOWLEDGE”
27. We concur with the view that universities’ fundamental
25. Notwithstanding these lessons from the recent past, contribution to society lies in creating and passing on
much current thinking about universities implies a pre- “useful knowledge”, and engaging with society in its
dominant concern that they should gear themselves application, but argue that the definition of utility is
only to immediate demands. We argue that in research, often too narrowly drawn. As is evident from the argu-
in teaching and in learning it is not only important that ment so far, we do not concur with the increasing
universities address and train for current needs, but assumption that useful knowledge is only that immedi-
equally important that they develop the thinking and ate knowledge which forms the basis for the technolo-
the mental and conceptual skills and habits that equip gies and skills believed to be crucial for economic suc-
their graduates to adapt to change and even steer it if cess. Useful knowledge, and the skills that go with it,
circumstances permit. Uncertainty about future rele- are derivative from a deeper capability that is insuffi-
vance in the spectrum of research or of curricula is ciently credited by government, and often relinquished
such that a Darwinian adaptive model is the most for shallower perceptions of utility by the very academ-
appropriate; where both range across the whole land- ics who should most cherish it. It is a capability deeply
scape of human understanding and experience, embedded in the fundamental role that universities
embodied not only in the natural sciences and technol- have in creating new knowledge and transmitting it to
ogy but also in the arts, humanities and social sciences. successive generations together with the knowledge
which has been accumulated by predecessors and
26. The key to retaining the flexibility to exploit the unex- which in each generation is subjected to renewed tests
pected lies in a fundamental understanding of the of verification.
nature of phenomena. Such understanding continu-
ously resynthesis specific knowledge in the form of 28. We argue that in practice, many of the qualities that
governments prize in universities are by-products of
A university that moulds itself only deeper functions of the university. If those functions are
undermined, the rest will also fail. The ideas and capac-
to present demands is not listen- ities that the future will need are a singularly important
ing to its historians. part of universities’ work. Benefits are reaped long after

11 Fukuyama, Francis. The end of history and the last man. Penguin, London. 1992.

What are universities for?

the seeds are sown – one can justifiably say that there knowledge. These are deeply personal, private goods,
are two sorts of science: applied and not yet applied, but they are also public goods. They are the qualities
and that the same is true of the whole domain of knowl- which every society needs in its citizens. That is even
edge. Current policy preoccupations with the short- more the case in our European societies since our cul-
term are fundamentally at odds with the sustainable ture believes that fair and open societies, which can
effect which governments must hope for from universi- resolve legitimate competition between individuals
ties over the longer term. Indeed, some governments and groups and harmonise legitimate differences, are
increasingly place their emphasis exclusively on stud- only maintained by participatory democracy. It is uni-
ies with near-term economic impact. versities that produce these citizens, or at least
enough of them to leaven and lead society generation
29. Let us therefore examine how university contributions by generation.
to society are achieved through their historic roles in
education and research, and how they should best 31. Moreover, and once again, many of the qualities
respond to current priorities for outreach, in contribut- prized by government - entrepreneurship, manageri-
ing to innovation, and in public and international al capacity, leadership, vision, teamwork, adaptability
engagement. They are by no means all the roles that and the effective application of specific technical skills
universities do or could play, but are the major parts - are not primary features, but are derived from the
of their current effort and the focus of current debate. more fundamental qualities explored in the previous
paragraph. It is these qualities that policy and univer-
sity management should seek to reinvigorate. The
Education more recently advocated functions of universities are
only part of a wider project which contains their
30. There is, or should be, in university education, a con- essence. That capability which leads to economically
cern not only with what is learned, but also with how significant outcomes is derivative from a deeper cre-
it is learned. Too much pedagogy is concerned solely ativity. It has been misguidedly made to stand as a
with the transfer of information. Even an education proxy for useful knowledge; but universities should
directed towards immediate vocational ends is less read their function more widely and more intelligently.
than it could be, and graduates are left with less
potential than they might have, if it fails to engage the 32. But should we focus more of our efforts, more status,
student in grappling with uncertainty, with deep more student funding in teaching the scientific and
underlying issues and with context. Generation by technological disciplines that are believed to be
generation universities serve to make students think. engines of the knowledge economy, and even here to
They do so by feeding and training their instinct to focus more on immediate applicability? We do not
understand and seek meaning. It is a process where- recognise a rational basis for a university’s spectrum
by young people, and those of more mature years of taught disciplines or programmes of study other
who increasingly join them as students, are taught to than those of student demand, the progress and
question interpretations that are given to them, to potential of specific areas of study, which naturally
reduce the chaos of information to the order of an wax and wane with the tempo of discovery, the
analytical argument. They are demand for knowledge in the pub-
taught to seek out what is rele- Universities serve to make lic domain and the prospects of
vant to the resolution of a prob- employment. There is virtue in leav-
students think: to resolve
lem; they learn progressively to ing students free to choose their
identify problems for themselves problems by argument sup- studies without excessive direction
and to resolve them by rational ported by evidence; not to towards subjects which will sup-
argument supported by evi- posedly bring them or society the
dence; and they learn not to be
be dismayed by complexity, greatest material benefit. Studies
dismayed by complexity but to but bold in unravelling it. that speak to a student’s enthusi-
be capable and daring in unrav- asms are more likely to stimulate
elling it. They learn to seek the true meaning of things: the capacities of paragraph 30 above than unen-
to distinguish between the true and the merely seem- gaged, dutiful pursuit of a prescribed discipline. Our
ingly true, to verify for themselves what is stable in understanding of ourselves and of nature, and our
that very unstable compound that often passes for exploitation of that understanding, remain the means

whereby societies are able to progress, economically, such values are themselves utilitarian. They form a
socially and culturally. If there is a current malaise in bedrock that enables the practical skills needed by
Europe, it is likely to be as much social and cultural as society to be most intelligently deployed: those of doc-
economic. Understanding our past, understanding tors, engineers, nurses, scientists, teachers, account-
the cosmos around us, understanding our social rela- ants, lawyers, ministers, businessmen, social scien-
tions, our cognition and our material selves are all tists, and those who will promote and perform the cre-
parts of a nexus that is needed in a healthy and aware ative arts. The combination of deep, personal under-
society, and one that is reflected in the diverse con- standing and technical skill is a powerful alchemy that
temporary demands for literature, television and for sustains a creative and innovative society. All universi-
leisure. Moreover, the processes of innovation that ties, and their stakeholders, should be committed to its
lead to economic development depend in practice on support. The annual flux of skilled graduates armed
inspiration from this whole range of understanding, with these capacities continually refreshes society’s
and not exclusively or particularly on a restricted part technical excellence and its economic, social and cul-
of it. tural vitality, and is crucial to its capability to take bold,
imaginative and principled action in the face of an
33. Globalisation has increased the pressure for public uncertain future, rather than cowering in fear of it.
and private goods to be marketed and sold as com-
modities. It has been argued that students should be 35. Neither should these values be thought of as exclu-
regarded as customers, with the university as service sive to comprehensive research-intensive universities.
provider, a view that many university managers have The diverse institutions that now make up the univer-
accepted, either implicitly or explicitly. This redefini- sity sector in Europe and beyond, which reflect both
tion assumes a direct relationship between the acqui- the welcome explosion in higher education for a
sition of specific technical skills and their deployment greater proportion of the population and an increasing
in specific roles in the contemporary economy. Again, diversity of demand, all need to respond to these
it reflects expectation of an “in-out” relationship imperatives, whether they are classical research-
between the current demand for skills and university intensive universities or universities that give priority
education. It assumes that the skills that society and to vocational, technical education. The point is to
the economy need are simply ones of technical spe- direct a student’s attention to that which, at first,
cialisation, which we exceeds their grasp, but whose compelling fascina-
Statements about the reject for the reasons tion draws them after it. Watering down condescends
argued above. It to the unknown capabilities within ourselves. It con-
deeper values of educa-
assumes a quasi- descends towards those judged, a priori, to be inca-
tion can be traduced as contractual relation- pable of better things.
sentimental. We regard ship between the
customer and
them as deeply utilitarian. provider, analogous Research
to the skills one might pay to acquire in learning to
drive a car. It subverts the open-ended, often transfor- 36. Successful research, whether in the sciences, human-
mative relationship between academics and their stu- ities or social sciences, depends upon a culture and
dents that disturbs complacency and fits graduates to individual attitudes that value curiosity, scepticism,
confront and deal with the challenges of complexity serendipity, creativity and genius. They are values that
and change. The censorship exerted by current mar- are crucial to the university educational process at its
ket need over what is difficult or innovative, or intellec- most profound, and are most readily acquired in an
tually or aesthetically demanding can be such as to environment of free-ranging speculation and research
undermine the university’s role to provide for the that is permeated by them. Their transfer into society
future. by graduates who embody them is an essential con-
tribution to an innovative culture and a spirit of
34. We are aware that statements about the deeper, per- informed civic responsibility.
sonal values of education can easily be traduced as
sentimental attachment to an ivory tower, detached 37. Not only does its research create the frame for a uni-
from a world of employment and the insistent utilitarian versity’s educational role, but universities have also
demands from a variety of stakeholders. We retort that proved to be highly cost effective settings for basic

What are universities for?

research in particular. The reasons may lie in their nomic development, and the drive to shift university
non-hierarchical nature, the pervasive presence of the behaviour in order to give prominence or priority to
irreverent young, whose minds are not so full of the these issues. The crucial question is whether and to
means of refutation that original ideas are denied what extent this is true and
entry, and the highly competitive nature of most fund- appropriate. By implication, Innovation is
ing for university research, in contrast to specialist the European Commission dominantly a
research institutes, where the peace and quiet to believes that it is, given the
focus on a mission, undistracted by teaching or other equality of treatment afford- process of busi-
responsibilities, and with relatively assured funding, ed to education, research ness engagement
may be a questionable blessing12. By the same and innovation in their so-
with markets.
token, the excitable and dynamic nature of universi- called “knowledge triangle”
ties suits them much less well to the pursuit of long- in its recent communica- Universities can
term, strategic research objectives. This university tion4, and the way in which only play a minor
inclination towards basic research, which seeks to this is to be embedded in
explore the fundamentals of phenomena, also chimes the European Institute of
active role.
well with their educational role, in stimulating the flex- Innovation and Technology (EIT) as a putative exem-
ible modes of thought and creativity that are adapt- plar of a world-class university for the modern world.
able to a wide range of circumstances, and the deeply We have no doubt that universities have a fundamen-
personal ownership of the basis for lifelong learning. tal contribution to make to the innovation process, but
it is important to understand what that contribution is,
38. Universities, particularly comprehensive universities, and not to assume, as many increasingly do, that uni-
are unique amongst human institutions in the range of versities are direct drivers of innovation, and that this
knowledge they encompass. As a consequence, they could be their primary rationale.
have the potential rapidly to restructure and recombine
their skills in novel ways to address both the many 40. Universities can and do contribute to the innovation
trans-disciplinary issues that are becoming increasing- process, but not as its drivers. Innovation is domi-
ly important, and also to explore new, unexpected nantly a process of business engagement with mar-
avenues of understanding. As the pace of unantici- kets, in which universities can only play a minor active
pated discovery and the urgency of demand increase, role. They do however contribute to the fertility of the
this capacity is increasingly vital, environment that innovation needs if it
although universities have not exploit- Universities are is to flourish. University commerciali-
ed it as decisively as they should. sation activities themselves, the cre-
unique amongst
Although much has been made of the ation of spin-out and start-up compa-
need to develop and maintain critical human institutions in nies and licensing of intellectual prop-
mass in research, the critical diversity the range of erty, do not, even in the USA, where
required to confront challenges as university commercialisation is best
they arise or to create novel combina-
knowledge they developed, directly contribute signifi-
tions of researchers to address evolv- encompass. cantly to GNP. These activities have a
ing trans-disciplinary demands is often different role. They help to create an
more important. And electronic networks are no sub- environment sympathetic to and supportive of innova-
stitute for diverse and dynamic communities of place. tion, and particularly where they are associated with
internationally competitive research and excellent
graduates, they create a hubbub of creativity that
Innovation attracts research-intensive companies and invest-
ment into a region, and help catalyse innovation in
39. We referred earlier to the stress currently laid on the indigenous businesses. The bedrock for this potential
role of universities as engines of innovation and eco- remains however the university’s commitment to edu-

12 May, R.M. The scientific wealth of nations. Science. 1997. “The reasons may lie in their non-hierarchical nature, the pervasive presence of the irrever-
ent young, and the highly competitive nature of most funding for university research, in contrast to specialist research institutes, where the peace and
quiet to focus on a mission, undistracted by teaching or other responsibilities, and with relatively assured funding, may be a questionable blessing.”

cation in the deepest sense, and its exploration at and developing enabling processes that can support a
beyond the limits of human understanding. A recent wide variety of activities is often not recognised by
study of the role of higher education in meeting inter- funders of research at national and European levels,
national business demands13 concludes that it is “the who frequently propose to reinvent and prescribe
quality of staff at all levels that is the most important knowledge transfer structures at levels far removed
determinant of business competitiveness”. To which from the research base. This risks increasing the con-
we would retort that the individual qualities embodied straints on universities’ efforts to use intellectual prop-
in university graduates, developed through the classi- erty and capability creatively, and, at worst, stopping
cal educational processes summarised in paragraph successful initiatives in their tracks16.
30, and leavened by appropriate technical skills, are
crucial contributions from universities. 43. It is erroneous to think of innovation, as some of these
interventions implicitly do, as a supply-driven
41. There is much debate about “innovation systems”; process, fuelled by inventions, often created in univer-
how they should be structured and the role of univer- sities, and particularly in science and technology.
sities in them. The notion of a single, durable and Although few would admit it, this can be the only
generically applicable innovation system is a seduc- rationale for some governmental policies of recent
tive concept for policy makers, but misconceived. A years. In practise, although attention must be given to
recent LERU report14 gave examples of the great the quality of supply of excellent education, excellent
diversity of ways in which universities contribute to research and responsiveness to business needs, this
innovation processes, which vary according to the of itself is not enough. Where demand is weak, excel-
nature of the regional econo- lent supply has rarely been suffi-
my, the business sector Autonomous academics have cient to stimulate it. Governmental
involved and the nature of the
the freedom, and the duty, lib- intervention has often been a
university. Indeed it is clear powerful stimulus for demand,
that multiple innovation sys- erally to contribute their with government use of public
tems operate concurrently in understanding to the benefit procurement of research products
the same region and that the from companies as a particularly
mosaic of innovation changes
of society. potent device for stimulating the
through time. Innovation sys- growth of knowledge-intensive
tems might best be defined as an “ecology”15, in companies and increasing private investment in
which interactions between different actors produce R&D.14 It is also the case that as the service sector
emergent behaviour that is highly adaptive to circum- becomes pre-dominant in developed economies,
stance and opportunity. knowledge-intensive growth depends on a much
wider range of inspiration than just science and tech-
42. If this is a good description of reality, it warns against nology, and in which the arts and humanities are play-
generic governmental or European Commission inter- ing an increasing role17.
ventions that take a prescriptive view of innovation
processes or structures. A key principle is that it is 44. It is a common myth that the primary deficit in innova-
autonomy of action by an institution that is aware of tion is failure to exploit research inventions, and to
regional priorities that gives an institution the greatest overcome this deficit, that universities should be more
potential to contribute, not only to market innovation, pro-active agents of innovation. The university role in
but also to innovation in cultural and social spheres. innovation is in developing human capital, at bache-
The key processes are those that stimulate interac- lors, masters and doctoral levels; in contributing to
tion. It is a matter of concern that the principle of the intellectual, social and cultural resources of a

13 International competitiveness and the role of universities. Council for Industry and Higher Education. April 2007.
14 Universities and innovation: the challenge for Europe. League of European Research Universities. October 2006.
15 Universities and public research organisations in the European Research Area. Report from the Expert Group on Knowledge for Growth. David, P.A.
and Metcalfe, S. European Commission. 2007.
16 The future of the European Research Area. League of European Research Universities. April 2007.
17 Hidden Innovation. National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. 2007.

What are universities for?

region in ways that encourage inward investment of and regulation, the perception that such engagement
knowledge intensive business; in helping to stimulate is an important part of the role of the university, its
entrepreneurial activity; and in collaborating with busi- academics and its students, naturally leads govern-
ness to create mechanisms of interaction. ment and funding bodies to encourage its corporate
management. The temptation is to assume that such
activities need to be measured and incentivised, lead-
Public engagement ing to a duller, more routinely managed effort, which is
increasingly seen as an imposition justifying payment
45. Academics have long contributed freely their special- or contract rather than a natural expression of the uni-
ist knowledge or distinctive perspectives to public versity ethos and of the academic vocation. The chal-
bodies, and to a broader public through lectures, lenge is in part for university managers, to create, with
debate, discussion or performance, and as “public a light touch, an enabling environment that supports
intellectuals”, who take on a public role to stimulate and encourages such activity, exploiting the universi-
debate or social activism. Much of this engagement is ty’s greatest strength, its diversity of inspiration, rather
negotiated with and by individual academics and their than stifling it by overmanagement or inappropriate
students, often without the formal consent or even metrics. In part the challenge is for government and
knowledge of their universities. It is part of the “halo” other bodies to express the need and to fashion the
effect of a university, and depends entirely on the pre- processes through which such inputs to public policy
sumption that autonomous academics have the free- and engagement can be made.
dom, and the duty, to promote learning and under-
standing. Though a “cottage industry”, its aggregate
contribution to civic society can be very great. International engagement

46. It is timely that this aspect of university capacity 48. Academic scholars have maintained networks of inter-
should be better cherished and rewarded by the uni- national links since the early days of universities, long
versities themselves and recognised and supported before the phenomenon of globalisation ushered in by
by government. The increasing priority for “evidence- the recent communications revolution. That revolution
based” public policies depends on access to a wide has destroyed geographical barriers to communication
range of specialists, many based in universities, and and interaction, such that we now live in a novel world
the willingness of academics to be called upon for of virtual proximity, global perception and awareness.
advice and involvement in the policy process. Equally Some take an optimistic view of these developments,
there are many major current issues, such as climate that they “will increase understanding, foster tolerance,
change, energy, food security, and genetic manipula- and ultimately promote worldwide peace”18. Others are
tion, that lie both at the margin of more pessimistic. They see a world in
scientific understanding and in the A shared ethos enables which we are no longer cocooned in
domain of ethical contention, such ignorance of the elsewhere, but borne
universities to collabo-
that deliberative public engagement in on by every drama, every twist of
with the issues and uncertainties rate across cultural fortune as it happens, wherever it
associated with them is required if divides and deepen their happens, and with social attitudes
effective and publicly acceptable and political processes that are ill-
policies are to be introduced.
students’ understanding adapted to cope with these changes.
Academics’ reputations for inde- of a complex world. But irrespective of the outcome, the
pendence and their credibility make opportunity for universities to play an
them ideal interlocutors in such debates whilst their independent, mediating role in this changing world is
universities provide an ideal, neutral space for clear. Internationally, they are located in different cultur-
engagement. These are challenges and opportunities al milieus, but they share a common ethos that permits
to which the modern university must respond. them to collaborate across cultural divides and to deep-
en in their students a sympathy for and understanding
47. However, in an age that reveres management, metrics of the diversity of cultural assumptions and the com-

18 Cairncross, F. Death of distance 2.0. Texere, New York. 2001.

plexities of the modern world. Over the last decade, uni- understand and make accessible that extraordinary
versities have begun to develop international corporate intensity and complexity of beauty by which humans
links and networks that are increasingly used in struc- specify themselves in the merging of thought, emotion
tured ways to intensify dialogue, to articulate education- and expression – a high enough mission by any stan-
al collaborations and to undertake joint research on dard. More important for our purpose, they provide
major global problems. A convergent trend, that of understanding of why and how we express differently
increasing student mobility, should be seized on by our common characteristics of being, as well as how
them as the basis for the common task of educating the we differ as individuals, groups and cultures. History –
rising generation as global citizens, rather than merely and none more so than recent and contemporary his-
as contributors to a university’s finances or to the tory – demonstrates how supremely important the dis-
national workforce. These changes in behaviour, the semination of that understanding is to stable and
rational and humane values that universities increasing- healthy societies. Globalisation, especially in its
ly share, and the democratising force that they repre- effects of instantly accessible worldwide information,
sent, also make it timely for them to find a common and increasingly mobile populations, has created
voice in intervening in international debate about global political complexity by bringing once distant cultural
issues. assumptions into close proximity, and makes this an
ever more pressing necessity. It would be absurdly
naive to argue that an understanding society (another
form of “knowledge society”) would be devoid of divi-
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE HUMANITIES sive competition and destructive conflict. At the same
AND SOCIAL SCIENCES time, though, ignorance is the surest route to panic,
hatred, and devastation.
49. The arguments presented above are generic argu-
ments, applicable to the whole spectrum of university 52. Research in the arts, humanities and social sciences
disciplines. However, we wish to single out and is a core resource and stimulus for cultural perform-
underline the role of the humanities and social sci- ance, exhibition and maintenance of the historic envi-
ences, as government policies for universities, partic- ronment, and is increasingly embedded in the norms
ularly in research, too frequently concentrate on sci- of popular culture. It promotes historical understand-
ence, technology and medicine, with a perfunctory ing of our own and other cultures, religions and soci-
nod towards the humanities and social sciences that eties. It fosters public debate and engagement with
implicitly undervalues their importance for society. the complexities of modern life, especially those
which involve conflicting moralities, traditions and
50. The humanities are concerned with what it means to beliefs. Through its humane values, it provides crucial
be human: the stories, the ideas, the words that help support for civic virtues and open, accessible govern-
us make sense of our lives and the world we live in; ment, on which civilised society depends. Its societal
how we have created it, and are created by it. They and humane focus addresses major current social,
give voice to feeling and artistic shape to experience, cultural, ethical and economic challenges, including
exploring issues of morality and value. The social sci- the impact of scientific and medical advances, the
ences attempt to deduce, through scientific observa- management of international relations, development
tion, the processes that govern the behaviour of indi- and security, and the effects of globalisation and
viduals and groups. They are crucial to the creation of migration. It contributes decisively to today’s recogni-
effective social policy. tion that modern society depends on the whole range
and interconnectedness of knowledge rather than on
51. There is an implicit notion that the understanding they a few academic disciplines. It makes an increasingly
confer is less important than that loosely termed “sci- effective practical contribution, together with other
ence”, although natural scientists themselves rarely disciplines, to the creation of public policy.
take that view. Research in the humanities and social
sciences is concerned with issues that are essential to 53. The acknowledgement that moral, social and political
stability, good order, creativity and inspiration in soci- progress have not kept pace with mastery of the
ety. In these disciplines are gathered the thinking, physical world shows the need for more intensified
learning, and explanation of what binds and what research, fresh insights, vigorous criticism and inven-
separates human beings. They seek not only to tiveness in the humanities and social sciences. Many

What are universities for?

major contemporary issues, the introduction of novel drivers of behaviour and corporate motivation that
and disruptive technologies, policies for health, edu- top-down mechanisms are driving some institutions
cation and penal reform, the consequences of climate close to becoming strongly managed research insti-
change and the development of new energy systems tutes, squeezing out diversity of function and under-
require engagement across the whole disciplinary mining teaching and learning.
spectrum if they are to be rationally addressed.
56. Political boldness is also required. The freedom to
enquire, to debate, to criticise and to speak truth to
power, whether it be the power of government, of
THE CHALLENGE FOR UNIVERSITY those that fund the university, or those who manage it,
GOVERNANCE is central to the vitality of the university and its utility
to society. It is crucial that
54. We wrote at the beginning of this essay of “the open- rectors and university gov- Universities must
ness to contradiction that is part of the genius of the erning boards understand
not be seduced by
university”. One of those contradictions derives from this essential source of insti-
the relative freedom and autonomy of academics, and tutional strength, that they the fallacy of
the lack of inhibition of its students; which are the are steadfast in its support, managerial
source both of the university’s greatest strength and strong in its defence and are
its greatest weakness. On the one hand it generates a not seduced by the fallacy
hubbub of creativity and entrepreneurial initiatives of managerial primacy: that things that make manage-
that stimulate diverse and sometimes towering intel- ment difficult necessarily need to be removed or
lectual achievement. On the other, it can be the reformed. An easily governed university is no univer-
source of profound resistance to managed change or sity at all.
the orchestration of joint efforts in response to chang-
ing societal needs. A central dilemma for university
governance is therefore how to retain the sense of
ownership of the university enterprise by its members, ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND TRUST
which creates the setting for their creativity to range
freely, whilst implementing the structural changes that 57. Such freedom however poses a dilemma for govern-
are inevitably needed from time to time if a university ment. For bodies that are largely funded from the pub-
is to remain a creative force for future generations. lic purse, universities and their staff have a unique free-
dom from governmental direction and control. But in an
55. Managing such a university is not like managing era where there is said to be a deepening crisis of trust
industrial production in response to market demand. and a culture of suspicion about public bodies and pro-
There is a core of the university operation that requires fessionals, the demands for accountability in exchange
efficient top-down management, such as the frame- for this freedom have grown. Although there has been
work for teaching, the structures of research support, widespread recognition of the value of university auton-
technology transfer and professional services. But the omy in permitting institutions to act decisively and flex-
crucial attribute, for both students and academics, is ibly in response to need or opportunity, and where state
a culture of individual freedom, creativity and control is recognised as having been a barrier to devel-
serendipity. It provides the frame for new insights and opment, freedom is necessarily accompanied by calls
understanding; gives free rein to the enthusiasms and for greater accountability. However, accountability can
commitment that lead to public often be control by another name.
engagement; and for the space to The challenge is to Increasingly bureaucratic mecha-
create new enterprises that as they nisms of accountability have been
exploit the potential of
mature can be absorbed into the established to verify that the trust
formal operation of the university, autonomy and freedom implied in freedom from control is jus-
and so change its shape and direc- without oppressive tified. Detailed regulations, memoran-
tion. A current danger in many da, instructions, guidance, and lists of
countries stems from the financial
accountability. “best practice” flood into institutions,
benefits that come to a university through research too frequently focussing on processes rather than out-
funding mechanisms. These can be such powerful comes. Even then, such mechanisms rarely penetrate

sufficiently deeply into the processes they are sup- CONCLUSIONS
posed to verify to achieve their aim. Quality assurance
does not measure the quality of education, merely 59. It is our contention that slipshod thinking about the
some of the second-order issues associated with edu- roles that universities can play in society is leading to
cation. Their principal result is to impose unproductive demands that they cannot satisfy, whilst obscuring
bureaucratic burdens. It is vital to understand that such their most important contributions to society, and, in
mechanisms can ultimately undermine the outcomes the process, undermining their potential. It is wrong, in
that are a university’s principal benefit to society. The our view, to expect (to use language from the begin-
challenge to universities, government and society is to ning of this paper) that universities will be dynamos of
articulate a compact that recognises the value of growth and huge generators of wealth, leading to eco-
autonomy and freedom and supports them, but is able nomic prosperity and enhanced quality of life on any-
to assess the value and benefit without oppressive thing like the scale that is implicit in such language. In
mechanisms that undermine a university’s potential. a European context, where governments are principal
funders of universities, the assumption is that they are
58. One of the dilemmas facing governments where they a lever which, when pulled, will gush forth the tangible
are the major funder of universities, is to find an effects of economic prosperity into which public
appropriate basis for funding: one that will enable money has been transformed. In reality, universities
them to be bold and creative in using their capacities can only be one part of the process of producing a
to address the diversity of functions alluded to in this successful knowledge economy. The oft-quoted
essay. Whilst universities should be funded for how example of Silicon Valley and Stanford University is far
well they do the things that make them what they are, more subtle and complex than a simple reading
it is too easy to develop one or two lines of funding, allows. It is a compound of capitalist enterprise, tech-
driven by metrics that stand proxy for deeper, elusive nical and legal services, skilled labour, a broad range
qualities, that so drive university behaviour that they of social provision in the public domain, local and
pour excessive efforts into the satisfaction of the met- state government policy, the appetites of an histori-
ric rather than the properties cally entrepreneurial culture, and maybe even climate.
Slipshod thinking metrics attempt to measure. The exact part of universities in all that is not easy to
Such metrics can also have measure. This is akin to saying that humans would not
is leading to the perverse consequence of exist without sperm and egg. Of course not; but they
demands that driving out much of the cre- are not what creates that wonderful diversity of indi-
universities can- ative diversity of behaviour vidualities amongst which each one of us has their
that is one of the university’s own place. To confine universities to such a mechan-
not satisfy, whilst great strengths. ical place in the progress of society is to diminish
obscuring their them; it invites doomed attempts to measure intangi-
ble effects by unyielding metrics; it offers only eventu-
most important
al disillusion.
60. Universities deal with the universality of knowledge;
they are concerned with human beings in all their man-
ifestations – biological, mental, emotional, objective
and subjective – and their social, cultural and econom-
ic organisations and interactions with each other; they
are concerned with the physical world within which
human beings find themselves. They seek to under-
stand that which we do not understand; they seek to
explain complexity; they seek to discover that which is
hidden from us. They seek to establish what is com-
mon to all of us and what distinguishes us each from
another or each group from another. These things are
common to the whole of university endeavour whatev-
er the discipline. They are not “academic” in the pejo-
rative sense of the word, but are of profound, practical

What are studies
Doctoral universities for?
in Europe: excellence in researcher training

utility. They are the foundation upon which the universi- respond to the changing values and needs of succes-
ty enterprise rests and upon which its significance for sive generations, and from which the outputs cher-
society is built. ished by governments are but secondary derivatives.
To define the university enterprise by these specific
61. There are two important points to derive from these outputs, and to fund it only through metrics that
propositions. The first is that it is the totality of the uni- measure them, is to misunderstand the nature of the
versity enterprise that is important. One cannot simply enterprise and its potential to deliver social benefit.
separate one element and say that is what we want These issues of function and purpose are important,
and that is what we will pay for. Human society is not and need to be explicit. They must be part of the
separable in the way that governments would neces- frame for the animated debate taking place in Europe
sarily wish to decompose it for the purpose of discrete that generates headlines such as “creating an innova-
policy actions. It is a complex interacting whole, tive Europe”19, “delivering on the modernisation agen-
which needs to be understood as a whole. No one da for universities”20, and “the future of European uni-
discipline suffices to seize the whole – whether the versities: renaissance or decay?”21.
whole individual or the whole social construct. Of
course, public policy will place a premium on this or 63. The second point is that the instinct to understand, to
that aspect at different times, but it cannot simply set find meaning, to map oneself and one’s actions and
about neglecting the rest on the purely temporary and the world, is essentially human. In our view, this is one
therefore relative grounds of a present concern. of the principal definitions of humanity, even if one
Indeed, universities are the only place in society were to reduce it simply to primordial angst.
where that totality of ourselves and our world is Knowledge is a human attribute, quite distinct from,
brought together. It is universities in their diversity of say, the tool-making skills of the New Caledonian
preoccupations that are the strongest providers of crow or the communication skills of the chimpanzee.
rational explanation and meaning that societies need. Therefore, those parts of the university and its
research which deal with the human being as an indi-
62. Universities are not just supermarkets for a variety of vidual or as a collectivity (that is, the humanities and
public and private goods that are currently in demand, the social sciences) are as important as science and
and whose value is defined by their perceived aggre- technology and are as central to the well-being of
gate financial value. We assert that they have a deep- society.
er, fundamental role that permits them to adapt and

It is the totality of the university enterprise that is important, as the only place
where that totality of ourselves and our world is brought together, and which
makes it the strongest provider of the rational explanation and meaning that
societies need. It is the complex, interacting whole that is the source of the
separate benefits valued by society. It needs to be understood, valued and
managed as a whole.

19 Creating an innovative Europe. Report of the Independent Expert group chaired by Esko Aho. European Commission. January 2006.
20 Delivering on the modernisation agenda for universities: education, research and innovation. European Commission. COM (2006) 208.
21 Lambert, R. and Butler, N. The future of European universities: renaissance or decay? Centre for European Reform. 2006.

LERU Publications

• The Future of the European Research Area (September 2007)

• Doctoral Studies in Europe: Excellence in Researcher Training (May 2007)
• Universities and Innovation: The Challenge for Europe (November 2006)
• Commentary on the Purpose, Structure and Functions of a European Institute of Technology (May 2006)
• Competitiveness, Research and the Concept of a European Institute of Technology (November 2005)
• Growth, Research-intensive Universities and the European Research Council (March 2005)
• Unlocking Europe’s Intellectual Potential - Universities and a European Common Market for Research (April 2004)
• Research-intensive Universities as Engines for the “Europe of Knowledge” (May 2003)
• The European Higher Education and Research Areas and the Role of Research-intensive Universities (August 2002)

All papers are freely available on the LERU website:

LERU Office
Huis Bethlehem tel +32 16 32 99 71
Schapenstraat 34 fax +32 16 32 99 68
B-3000 Leuven