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György Schöpflin - What is the Role of Academia in the Society?

05.12.2017

Once upon a time, back in the mid-20th century, the role of the university was clear enough. It was to reproduce the elite and to advance knowledge. The two are not the same and may well be in conflict. After all, some forms of knowledge, those that question the elite, are regarded as anything between tiresome and dangerous – by the elite, at any rate. The advancement of knowledge is, of course, central to the legacy of the Enlightenment. My old (and senior) colleague, Ernest Gellner, used to speak about “cognitive growth”.

Cognitive growth more or less corresponds to the ideal advanced by Wilhelm von Humboldt two centuries ago, that the university should be a centre of comprehensive learning. The motto of the London School of Economics, where Gellner and I were colleagues many years ago, is rerum cognoscere causas, to know the causes of things.

But, if we look at the history of the European university, we can see that learning also included vocational studies – law and medicine were always one among these fields. Indeed, the University of Bologna, the oldest in Europe (founded in 1088), began life by teaching law.

Nowadays there are various tensions around the role of universities and the vocational model and the advancement of knowledge is one of these. One reason is the sheer growth in university education. When I went to university in the 1950s (Glasgow) I was one of maybe seven percent of school leavers to do so. In Britain, the figure is now not far short of fifty percent. And size does matter. Evidently, when half the population goes to university, then its function is rather more than allowing the elite to reproduce itself and to give space to criticism. University education has become the passport to mobility and to status in the world. But has size swamped the critical function?

Then there is also the question of cost (for sure). Who will pay for this vastly greater educational establishment – faculty as well as students and administrators? When only seven percent went to university, the state – the taxpayer – could afford this. Today, it’s a very different matter. The result is student indebtedness, unless a well-to-do family can afford the costs, which then undermines the egalitarian ideal of access to knowledge. At the same time, academics are underpaid and the university sector is generally too weak politically to change this. There are no easy answers to this dilemma.

Another issue raised by mass university education is whether everyone who goes to university benefits from it. It has been argued that for some the answer is no. The increasing drop-out rates tend to confirm this proposition. And it’s not at all clear that the job market really needs so many graduates. At the extreme end, we can hear anecdotes of graduates ending up as shop assistants. That’s a recipe for disappointment, as well as a waste of resources, if nothing else.

On the other hand, with mass higher education, there is also the question of status in society. Are those who have not been to university to have a lower status? Hardly. That would fly in the face of equal citizenship. Yet the status issue is very real, it has been mapped onto culture, society and politics – the rise of so-called right radical movements overlaps with this inequality of status (both real and perceived). Nothing illustrates this better than Hillary Clinton referring to some of her voters as “a basket of deplorables”.

Another source of tension is also connected to funding, especially in the very costly hard sciences. The pure research ideal is not really sustainable without sizeable investment, so the beneficiaries (industry) support the research, but does this affect the purity of the ideal? In some cases, certainly, but hardly in others. Support for technological research by the US military gave the world the internet, for one. All the same, the suspicion is alive and well that there is something not quite right with this model – the proverb that “he who pays the piper, calls the tune”, is clearly there in minds of the critics.

Just the same, the cognitive growth model is far from dead, even if it is under pressure. In my own field, in the social sciences, one can clearly chart a growth in the understanding of social processes in the last half century. If we make the effort, we can have a much better idea of why and how change occurs. But for this to work and to find acceptance in society, those in the field must be ready to be criticised as well as to criticise. Otherwise what we end up with is frozen knowledge and that’s no use to anyone. So looking for the causes of things remains central to the university as much now as in Humboldt’s time.