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Everything palls, everything passes, everything perishes

By Steven Schwartz - posted Tuesday, 4 October 2022

In his book, The Uses of a University, Clark Kerr, former President of the University of California, underscores the longevity of universities:

Eighty-five institutions in the Western world established by 1500 still exist in recognisable forms, with similar functions and unbroken histories, including the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, Iceland, and Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and 70 universities. Kings that rule, feudal lords with vassals, and guilds with monopolies are all gone. These seventy universities, however, are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things and with governance carried on in much the same ways.

Clearly, universities are venerable institutions, but an ancient heritage does not guarantee a rosy future. The Roman Catholic Church had been dominant in England for almost 1,000 years when it rejected Henry VIII’s request to have his marriage annulled. Henry’s revenge - the dissolution of the monasteries, abbeys, and friaries and the sacking of thousands of priests, deans, and bishops - took less than five years. The French Revolution required only three years to topple a 900-year-old monarchy. The Soviet Union went from a functioning (albeit troubled) nation to the “former Soviet Union” in only a few months. 


Some years ago, Simon Marginson, a leading expert on higher education, urged universities to address social needs lest they go the same way as the monasteries:

Nothing in the world, not even the rock beneath our feet, abideth forever. Every so often, nation-states and societies discover that they can live without inherited institutions. When institutions stand for nothing more, nothing deeper or more collective, no greater public good than the aggregation of self-interest - like the monasteries in … England, that accumulated vast social resources but came to exist only for themselves and those who used them - it is then that institutions are vulnerable. 

Clark Kerr would undoubtedly agree. He understood that universities need a purpose that addresses the needs of those who work or study in them and those of the greater society. Without such a higher purpose, Kerr, like Marginson, feared universities would lose public support. And this is what is beginning to happen. Formerly friendly commentators describe universities as “corrupted by their scrabbling for money” and governed by “naked self-interest.” Illiberal speech codes, the victimisation of dissidents, and scandals over corrupt admissions have taken a high toll on the reputation of higher education institutions. 

How can universities convince the public that, despite recent comments to the contrary, those who work in higher education are primarily interested in the public good? An excellent place to start is with Adam Smith, the gentle Scottish genius, who believed it was the government’s duty to support institutions that are “advantageous to society [but] of such a nature, that the profit could not repay the expense to any individual.”

Smith did not call such institutions “public goods,” nor did he give any examples. The task of defining the term “public good” was left to John Stuart Mill, who proposed a lighthouse as an example. Although it serves a vital function, Mill believed a lighthouse could never make a profit because anyone with eyes could use it for free. Mill concluded that taxpayers must fund lighthouses as no one would be willing to finance one privately. 

Universities do not fit Smith and Mill’s description of a public good. Universities confer private benefits on their students and staff, and they have no difficulty excluding “free-riders.” Some universities even make profits. It seems fair to conclude that universities are not by their nature public goods. If they wish to serve the general public, they must consciously set out to create goods the public wants.  


As Marginson puts it:

Universities have lost their rationale and need to reground themselves in the social. They will need to find a way to visibly create global public goods if they are not to follow the Tudor Monasteries and the Library of Alexandria! 

In the present age of money, in which all activities are assessed in financial terms, it is not surprising that universities claim they contribute to the public good by making countries prosperous. For example, a report published by the Group of 8 (a club of Australian research universities) boasts that its members contributed $66.4 billion to the national economy in a single year. Universities UK claims that universities in England contribute around £95 billion to the economy and support more than 815,000 jobs. The Institute of International Education calculates that international university students contribute $44.7 billion to the US economy. These are all impressively big numbers. They must be significant to convince governments, benefactors, and the public that they are getting something substantial back for the resources they put into higher education.

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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