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The Issue: Does the Government understand what Universities are for?

Originally published 23 January 2002

By Professor Andrew Oswald, Department of Economics

I believe that the members of the present Cabinet, like the Conservatives before them, do not understand what universities are for. They want useful universities — ones that are practical, efficient, and focused on business needs.

That is a mistake. It is mostly our fault. We have to tell them. We have to keep telling them. We have to keep telling them that we have been telling them.

There is plenty of need for utilitarian organisations in a modern society, and they play a role that it is not wise to denigrate. Vets’ surgeries, dry cleaners, airports, firms that train drivers, firms that drive trains, farms, the House of Commons, insurance offices — all are important and their principal asset is their usefulness. But that is not what you and I do. It cannot be stressed too strongly — we must hope that copies of CommUnicate eventually end up on the desks of Margaret Hodge and Estelle Morris and others — that the job of a real university is not to be useful and we must keep explaining that.

First, universities are in the truth business. This matters. Every other organisation in a society has biases to burnish. If the average British man or woman knows anything for sure, he or she should say a quiet thank you to a university somewhere. It is our job to sort the rare facts from the large supplies of untruths and propaganda that fill our world. Human progress is eventually built on those discoveries.

Second, universities are in the excellence business. Like an Olympics training village, they slice their purses from silk (whether from poor or rich homes). Society needs genius, though there is nothing egalitarian about it.

Third, universities are in the freedom business. Even the best journalists have to toe a publication’s line, whether they can admit it to themselves or not. By contrast, a university, more than any institution in the western world, has enshrined in its constitution both the expectation of a fundamental tolerance of other people’s opinions and the deeply felt right to freedom of speech. This is nothing to do with usefulness. It is a safety valve for social stability.

Fourth, universities are in the elegance business. If you attended the recent public lectures at Warwick by Professors Ian Stewart and Susan Bassnett, as I did, you may have been struck by the fact that the thread that bound together "Nature’s mathematical shapes" and "the history of Italian language" was a kind of fundamental concern, probably more subconsciously than consciously, for order and beauty. That is probably because of the intellectual rewards from symmetry. Find some symmetry and of course it will often turn out to be a kind of key that clicks open padlocks.

Despots do not burn useful things. That is why so many have left a university smoking. Politicians find universities bewildering and sometimes frightening for the very reason that universities are not in the utilitarian business. Show me a society that demands usefulness of its universities and I will show you a civilisation that has forgotten the deep bulwarks upon which it balances when the wind gets up.

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