June 04, 2003

Are the universities an instrument?

It is now taken for granted in the policy making culture in Australia that our higher education institutions are, and should be, an instrument for wealth creation. The purpose of deploying the instrument, say the utilitarians, is to ensure comparative or competitive advantage so as to enhance the wealth of the nation vis-a-vis other nations.

Things are not so cut and dried in the UK. Whether the universities are an instrument or not is still being debated in Britain. Under the Blair Government the liberal state says universities are an instrument. Thus,
Charles Clarke, the UK Education Secretary, stated this position in a recent speech at University College Worcester. He says:

"The other day I heard a vice-chancellor argue that the purpose of a university was the unfettered pursuit of truth and excellence. Another distinguished academic wrote a paper in which she argued that we should get back to a medieval concept of the university as a community of scholars unfettered by difficulties and problems of the wider society. These are perfectly legitimate approaches and justifications that stand up in their own account as to what institutions do and how groups of scholars come together. They don't add up to a justification for how the state provides resources for universities in the modern world. I have to ask, as a guardian of these resources, why the state should fund universities and what is their value.

My central argument is that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change. I argue that what I described as the medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth is not in itself a justification for the state to put money into that. We might do it at, say, a level of one per cent of what we do now and have one university of medieval seekers after truth as an adornment to our society. But I don't think that we will have the level of funding that we do now for universities unless we can justify it on some kind of basis of the type I have described."

This puts the issue cleanly. One can only agree with the latter part about the justification for the state putting public money into higher education. Its the former that is the problem----the instrumental view of higher education. But at least Clarke talks about society as well as the economy. It's more than the Howard Government does in Australia. And by talking about enabling those in the economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by global change the gestures to something more than job training. Clarke has forgotten those in politics needing resources to cope with the impact of globalization:---but that is usually the case with politicians.

The conservative response to this instrumental view is equally predictable:

"The only view of higher education is to study and disseminate knowledge for its own sake."

Really. The only view? Hardly a way to engage in the formation of public policy. But then they do not want to. The conservative conception is an ivory tower unfettered by, and indifferent to, the difficulties and problems of the wider society. Both the universities and the community of scholars should not be accountable to the general public or the state. What you get is the accusation Philistines!, which is designed to evoke the barabarian hordes (vandals) destroying liberal civilization. This response has been very common in Australia by the senior tenured academics.

Conservative here can be misleading because liberals hold something similar. They dump the mediaeval bit and retain the opposition of the liberal university to the free market. Thus Invisible Adjunct in a post on tenure says:

"Once upon a time, when I was young and hopeful and naive, I would have dismissed any talk of "tenure as cartel" out of hand. That's the rhetoric of free marketeers, I would have thought, who want to impose a corporate logic on an institution that exists to serve a higher calling. The university does and must stand in opposition and as an alternative to the market."

To her credit Invisible Adjunct has doubts about the black and whiteness of this. She says:

"Now that I've been adjunctified, I'm not so sure. Seems to me the university has been pretty thoroughly, if not completely, corporatized in many areas. The increasing reliance on a part-time contingent workforce is of course one such key area."

Where to if the liberal university is being corporatized by the liberal state along the lines of being an instrument that Clarke suggests? What is wrong with the university being seen as an instrument to further the interests of the nation state. Is not the university system a part of the nation state? Is it not funded by the state? Has it not always been so since the early nineteenth century (eg., the University of Berlin). If the university is an instrument of the state what then?

Something is needed here than evoking the ideal of the community of scholars as vital and then not providing much in the way of argument. What we get from academics is that this ideal is crucial to them; but they find it difficult to explain why this ideal is important, so central is it to my life. You often get something along the lines articulated by Josh Cherniss. He says:

"Not religious myself, the life of the mind takes the place of a religious vocation for me -- and the university is therefore like my church. But I do think this goes beyond personal commitment and faith ....Without the existence of such an intellectual life -- such a community of scholars (including the students as well as the faculty -- for, indeed, in the community of scholars, everyone is a student), much of that which makes life worth living, and civilization sometimes worth fighting and dying for -- that which holds out the rare and fragile possibility of redemption and progress of some sort -- will be lost, swept aside by a thoughtless instrumentalism which will, because it is blind, ultimately wind up degenerating into souless and mindless mediocrity."

We return to the university standing for culture and civilization in opposition to the instrumental reason the market and the state. The reality, however is otherwise.

A popular and sensible suggestion is the view that a purpose of higher education is to educate (not train) students to think and to analyse so that they develop a questioning and sceptical mode of being.

But why do we want a questioning mode? What is the point of it? Not for its sake surely. We use a questioning mode of being to make our lives better than they already are. Why bother living a life if we do not desire a better kind of life than we already have?

That consequentionalism is what the utilitarians have got right. (My dispute with the utilitarians is about 'better.' I would write that a questioning mode of being is connected to enabling us to live more flourishing lives [the good life], so that 'better' no longer means getting a better job or higher wages.) Education is an instrument that we deploy to enable us to live the good life.

How does higher education do this? One way is provided by the classical virtue tradition.

If virtue is ‘the skill in living’, and this skill of living a life well is an end, then moral virtue is a practical shaping of our life. The way we live is seen as actively reflecting and expressing your character and hence your choices. This shaping for sculpturing of our life is a kind of practical knowledge about good conduct.

An academic education is more concerned with fostering intellectual virtue. This is theoretically orientated and directed at achieving achieving truth. Though intellectual virtue is distinct from moral virtue both are intertwined. We do not seek truth as an end in itself, but rather to help us live more flourishing lives. If the moral virtues are aimed at right conduct, then we cannot be indifferent to the truth of our beliefs about the matters that concern us. Our grasp of truth will help to broaden and deepen our understanding of practical knowledge, right conduct and what constitutes living a flourishing life.

If education is an instrument that we deploy to enable us to live the good life, then the university as an ethical institution in civil society enables us to acquire the virtues that help us to live flourishing lives. The purpose of the university as an ethical institution is to foster the good life. It is an instrument to further the good life. It is an instrument we use to ensure that we can critically deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change so as to live more flourishing lives.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at June 4, 2003 07:40 PM | TrackBack

I agree with everything you've said here. In advocating utilitarianism/consequentialism, I don't support a narrowly materialistic conception of the good life.

Posted by: John Quiggin on June 4, 2003 11:15 PM

There would be a point of difference. The utilitarian conception of the better life is based on adding up individual subjective preferences to get the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
The virtue tradition is based on an objective conception of a flourishing life based on the sort of creatures that we are. It means that a sustainable life is part of the good life even if the majority in the marketplace considered wealth creation through irrigation to be the path to happiness.

The subjective objective difference is a big one.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on June 5, 2003 08:05 AM

For a different appreciation of the role of universities re the system in general please check out: The Illusion of the Separation of Church and State at:


John Forth

Posted by: John Forth on June 6, 2003 11:46 AM

I'm not sure we'd all be willing to give up on truth even if it didn't lead to flourishing, the good life, etc. Not sure, that is, that we value it simply because of its consequences. We're not all utilitarians.

I think we should (and perhaps do) simply value truth and knowledge and as societies support universities as means to those ends. Universities must be consequentialist to some extent; we cant ignore preparation for vocations and careers and must meld that into their mission. But their "higher" mission, if you will, is surely truth/knowledge/the intellectual virtues not necessarily informed by further ends.

Posted by: Tom Huddle on June 8, 2003 01:36 AM
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