THE FIRST European universities, for the most part established through papal bulls, coexisted uneasily with secular authorities. They were located within kingdoms and nascent nation states, but they were not of those states.

In China, ancient universities were entrusted with training the bureaucrats that made imperial rule possible. They were very much organisms of empire.

As the modern university emerged in the nineteenth century, innovators like Wilhelm von Humboldt imbued the university with the ideas of lehrfreiheit, lernfreiheit, and freiheit der wissenschaft—the freedom to learn, to teach, and to conduct research. This was the foundation of academic freedom, a principle that still lies at the heart of our universities.

Guy Neave, an under-appreciated contemporary theorist of the politics of higher education, once observed that the relationship between higher education and the state is structured by the kinds of knowledge valued by those in power. In medieval Europe, the Catholic Church required education independent from secular rulers. In China, the Emperor needed competent administrators. Following the disaster on the battlefield of Jena, Prussian authorities realized the need for a university that could modernize all aspects of the nation, from science to the economy to the military. Hence, Humboldt was tasked with creating a new university—one in the service of the state’s goals, but insulated from direct state control by the ideals of academic freedom.

These days, the demands of the so-called knowledge economy are again changing the relationship between universities and the state. The decline of traditional manufacturing jobs in the West—and the failure of governments to respond to this trend—has focused public policy on the need to train people to work in a post-industrial economy. Universities have become a key part of government economic strategy, and are increasingly admonished to produce more “job-ready” and “entrepreneurial” graduates, ready for the supposed high-skill, high-value, and high-tech jobs of the future.

At the same time, decades of neoliberal politics have created an environment where investments in public services like health care and education can only be justified through a barrage of (often arbitrary) metrics and performance indicators. No longer does government simply trust universities to teach students and conduct research with the funding they receive. Instead, higher education institutions must demonstrate their value—often defined in narrow economic terms—through increasingly byzantine reporting requirements and competition for funds. Guy Neave referred to this phenomenon as the rise of the “evaluative state.” Its logic is being felt in all corners of our universities.

Coming to terms with these changes is not easy, and certainly beyond a single issue of this magazine. But we have pulled together some exciting authors and articles to shed light on the shifting relationship between higher education and the state.

Starting here in Ontario, Sue Herbert writes about the rationale for the provincial government’s review of the university funding model, and provides some initial thoughts on what has been learned through the process. OCUFA President Judy Bates presents faculty perspectives on the funding formula review, highlighting key principles that need to be preserved in any new model and outlining OCUFA’s recommendations to the review team.

Staying in Canada, Rob Clift gives us a disturbing case study from British Columbia, where inept government regulation of private higher education providers has had serious consequences for students. Jamie Brownlee argues that both federal and provincial governments have played an instrumental role in commercializing universities across the country.

Writing from the UK, Simon Marginson argues that higher education across the anglosphere is losing its ability to advance social mobility as societies become more unequal. Shifting to public policy in the UK itself, Andrew Boggs provides an important summary of the seismic changes occurring in that country’s higher education sector.

Finally, as a special bonus to this issue of Academic Matters, we take a look at a subject that has become quite controversial in Canadian universities —the need for, and cost of, copyright licensing at higher education institutions. Roanie Levy, Executive Director of Access Copyright, argues that the organizations’s licences are evolving to meet new realities. Michael Geist takes an opposing view, suggesting that copyright licences have lost their value in the face of new options and jurisprudence that clarifies the meaning of fair dealing. It’s a thorny issue, and we’re pleased to bring you two voices at the centre of the debate.

As always, we welcome your thoughts and comments on this issue. Send me a letter at Or, you can visit anytime to leave a comment and join in the online debate.

Thanks for reading.

Graeme Stewart is the Editor-in-Chief of Academic Matters, Director of Communications for OCUFA, and a PhD student at the University of Toronto.