Does the university have a true purpose?

The whole of my working life has been spent in and about universities. When I began as an undergraduate, in 1954, they were small in size and number, and exclusive. Only a tiny proportion of my age-group went to university, and we were the ones who had continued through high school to the Leaving Certificate, where we collected enough passes in enough subjects to matriculate. Going to university meant disappearing from the wider society: all day and all night was spent in the place, for most of us. There were a few ‘evening students’, older men and a few women who wanted to improve their qualifications. Our teachers were trying to improve their qualifications, too, and were enrolled in higher degrees; the PhD was new, the first having been awarded in Australia in 1947.

Among the students there were a few who were just dazzled by the opportunity to learn about new things, but on the whole we were there to become something — teachers, in most cases. What we were taught would by and large help us in our future career, because the universities had considerable influence on what was taught in schools, and set the exit examinations. ‘Research’ was a new word. On the whole, ‘scholarship’, ‘learning’, and ‘knowledge’ were the usual terms. We were trained to go to the academic journals to find out what was known at the edge of the knowledge/ignorance boundary. We found that a great deal was not known. When, as a graduate student, I wanted to write about NSW politics in the interwar years, I could find only a couple of books and a couple of journal articles where it was even mentioned.

In the nearly sixty years that have passed since then the university world has grown enormously. A million people in Australia attend university (in Canberra tertiary students amount to about ten percent of the population), and higher education produces a significant amount of export income. Each year a few thousand PhDs graduate (in 1964, the year of my own graduation as PhD it was about a hundred), and ‘research’ has become king — indeed emperor — of the whole system.

Since my own academic career was built on a newly discovered capacity on my part to work hard and successfully at ‘research’ it may seem paradoxical that I began to worry about the dominance of research within the university once I became involved in research policy. In 1990 I was asked to give a named lecture in the UK, and devoted it to my anxiety that ‘research’ had come to dominate higher education, and that this was a bad thing. That lecture quickly became an article, published first in the UK* and then in Australia, and it caused some interest.

That was twenty years ago. I suggested in that lecture that proficiency in research was now the only path to honour within the university, and that promotions and appointments now depended almost completely on research performance. But the university served many purposes, and the acquisition of new knowledge was only one of them. In fact, research can be done in a number of settings, and the university is only one of them, too.

I argued that university staff had to contribute to five essential tasks: teaching and learning, research, scholarship (organising and distilling the knowledge we already have), collegial administration (making the place work well), and community service, which means the extension of the university to its community, in all its aspects. I said that all of these tasks were important, and high performance in any of them should be celebrated.

When I gave the lecture there was not a single teaching award across the whole higher education sector, but as the 1990s went on they became familiar. The Commonwealth took up that aspect of the university and instituted national awards for good teaching. I had thought that eventually the amount of money for research would level out, which was one reason I wanted different paths to honour. But no, our country has grown richer, and the Commonwealth has kept on increasing the amount of money for research. It seems now the be-all and end-all of the university.

But of course it isn’t. The university still has its true purpose, which is an extension of the role of the monastery of the Middle Ages: sorting out what we think we know, passing on that knowledge to each new generation, and equipping that generation to perform well in its work. No other body does that, or could do it. How well any university fulfils those tasks, and not whether or not a staff member has won the Nobel Prize, or whether or not the university is in the top one hundred universities in the world, is the socially important question.

(*Don Aitkin, ‘How Research Came to Dominate Higher Education and What Ought to be Done About It’, Oxford Review of Education, 17:3, 1991, pp 235-247)


Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    I like Andrew Bolt’s column in this morning’s Melbourne Herald-Sun. “But I’m an academic!” you say. Well well, fancy that! Welcome to the newly tribalised Australia, Professor. I can’t say I have any sympathy with you and your kind.

  • whtisitso says:

    Mr Aitkin appears to have made a comment response under this thread (in Comments segment in the right-hand column), but it’s not visible here. What goes?

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