Old/new, engaged/separate, public/private, elite/mass-oriented, national/global. But for universities, Simon Marginson argues, paradox is vital.

As a social institution the university is punctuated by paradoxes. Is there any other institution (except possibly government) that combines so many different social functions? Is so clear about its primary values, so diffuse and unreadable in its core objectives? So self-serving and other-serving at the same time? So easily annexed to a range of contrary agendas: conservative and radical, capitalist and socialist, elite and democratic, technocratic and organic?

The university is like the “public good”, in that it becomes what we want it to be. But the university rarely holds to a single course. It continually disappoints. It always falls short of potential. But we defend it. We sense that if it were lost then something quite fundamental, and probably essential, would be lost.

What are the paradoxes that punctuate the university?  Can we resolve those paradoxes?  How do we  live with them.?

Paradox 1. The university epitomizes both modernism and tradition.

The university is high temple of modernity and thrives as the cauldron of innovation. It is constantly transforming its own ideas and products, less frenetically but more universally than the consumer economy. Its role as a modernizer plays out constantly in science and technology, ideas, and aesthetics; frequently in business; sometimes in generational cultures (the 1960s) or global cultures (now). It is way ahead of the pack in its cosmopolitanism and internationalism. Its instinct for devolution and flat networking across cyberspace is another anticipation of society-to-be.

And yet the university is also steeped in an older style of bureaucracy and a mediaeval-clerical culture. Along with a small number of religious organizations, the older universities are the great survivors. How many of the leading companies of 1850 are still standing? Most of the leading universities are. The classics, traditional scholarship, and the often subversive culture of the book are resilient, especially in ivy-clad institutions that wield the most power. Disciplinary communities and peer review flourish (though academic control of governance has gone).

And this clinging by the university to its own traditions is the necessary condition of its incessant interventions, its transformative forays into society,  its modernizing capacity. On the other hand, if the university were not the successful modernizer, if it were not seen by society as haven of the Next Big Secret, its traditions would not last very long. In the university the future is the past. And the past is the future.

Paradox 2. The engagement of the university rests on autonomy.

That first paradox is not new. It began in the Anglo-American world when the German research university and its continuous encounter with science entered the American university and turned the latter into the modern research university, which spread through the world and became the global research university now standardized in the world rankings.

The second paradox is more recent in most countries, though it goes back further in the United States.

There are now tremendous pressures on the university to deliver to a wide range of “stakeholders”’ or “‘clients”: business and industry, professions and occupations, governments and their many agencies, NGOs, and global players. The great ivory towers, removed-from-the-world, have disappeared (though some little ivory towers are still in place). Nowadays the university is the builder of communities, salvager of regions, and the more active player in knowledge-city partnerships, with an ever-growing list of demands on its doorstep.

The paradox is that the university’s capacity to deliver and to solve problems others cannot solve without its help depends on its capacity to operate research, teaching, and service free of coercion or second guessing. It must have autonomy, if it is to fulfil the heteronymous role assigned to it by “engagement”, “third stream”, and “service learning”. Autonomy is essential to engagement. But unless the university is engaged in issues not of its choosing, it loses the social contract underpinning its autonomy. Freedom is slavery. Slavery is freedom. Orwellian stuff!

Paradox 3. The public-good role of the university is the source of private benefits.

Knowledge is a near-pure public good in the technical, economic sense. The knowledge creator may have a first-mover advantage and the best prospect of securing a private benefit from knowledge, but the benefits of knowledge cannot be confined for long to one person or agency. And once the knowledge is disseminated it becomes non-rivalrous and non-excludable. 

Goods are non-rivalrous when they can be consumed by any number of people without being depleted, such as knowledge of a mathematical theorem. Goods are non-excludable when the benefits cannot be confined to individual buyers. The mathematical theorem again satisfies this condition.

Since the prospect for private benefit disappears once knowledge is disseminated, non-rivalrous and non-excludable public goods are under-provided in economic markets because private providers cannot readily profit from them. Thus research all over the world is subsidized by government or philanthropy. Likewise, the liberal, generalist functions of teaching, including the formation of the intellect through its reproduction of disciplinary knowledge are never rewarded satisfactorily in labour markets. Labour markets reward credentials (which are rivalrous and excludable) in association with observable vocational skills, not generalist intellectual formation.

Yet while knowledge is a public good, it is annexed to a great range of private purposes. There’s the paradox. It is turned into copyrighted, knowledge-intensive objects, installed in technologies that generate profits by consuming the eco-system (the condition of possibility for all), used to set up market monopolies that block rivals, and  associated with claims to power and social privilege.

In producing knowledge as a global public good the university becomes complicit in all this. Indeed, the university is itself one of the corporations that secure private profit out of its production of public good knowledge. It suits those who profit from knowledge for it to be either accessed free of charge or below the cost of production. Unless the university provides knowledge-creation and mobilization for powerful elites, it would lose an essential part of its social base. Private goods are a condition of the public good role and vice versa. But how “public good” is that? Knowledge is a public good. But for which “public,” and in whose interests? Public is private. Private is public.

Paradox 4. The university is for markets but not of markets.

The university does much of its work for economic markets and does so in the manner  of a business. It minimizes costs, bids competitively, and signs performance contracts. It prepares graduates for the selling of their labour to employers. It often works the global market in fee-paying international students for profit and charges astronomical prices to those who enrol in an MBA program. The university’s research effort is, in part, directed towards the production of commercial science, often for companies that universities themselves own or share.

Government policies would drive the university towards these objectives, even if it were not so inclined. Some national governments (e.g., Britain, Australia) set employment rates of graduates as an explicit performance indicator. Government research policy all over the world offers incentives to the university to collaborate with industry and shift more research activity into commercializable knowledge goods. Indeed, part of the “public interest” remit of the university is to build the global competitiveness of the national economy and to meet the needs of business and industry.

Thus the university is the handmaiden of capitalism. It often seems enslaved to capitalism. But it does so by producing public knowledge. The paradox is that it serves private capital by producing public goods, and in a manner which is not itself commercial-capitalist, or at least not predominantly so.

The university may be  business-like, but it is not a business.  It is of the gift economy not the market  economy in that its “goods,” i.e., knowledge, is given to society, in the main, without an explicit promise in return of immediate, or even future, reward.  Explicitly commercial operations such as for-profit vocational programs or the hiring of university facilities are marginal, not central. The bottom line of the university is not profitability or market share (except in the for-profit institutions, which exist only on the margin. The leading institutions are more concerned about prestige and social power than about revenues. They need money to operate but would rather be smaller and more exclusive than produce to the mass market).

If the university were to tip over into being fully capitalist, it will have less to offer capitalism. If the university stopped producing subsidized “public good” basic research, it could no longer be a source of  applied and commercial research. If it taught only observable skills rewarded in labour markets and ceased to supply liberal education and disciplinary knowledge, it  would weaken conditions of production in all sectors of the economy, reduce social literacy, and render elites less competent. The markets buttress the social contract that underpins the university. In return, the university underpins markets. Business is gift economy. Gift economy is business.

Paradox 5. University research for all is conducted by a tiny few.

Many benefits of research in the university, even those translated into commercial product such as influenza vaccines, are widespread if not universal. In the era of the global knowledge economy, in which the techniques and reflexivities associated with research are increasingly useful to societies in every sector, the public interest lies in the broadest spread of research capability and creativity. In other words, in principle, all faculty ought to be either actively researching or likely to be so in future; and all institutions, including those with a purely vocational mission, ought to conduct research programs.

The paradox is that in all fields of knowledge building, like most fields of the arts, the really important breakthrough work is done by a tiny handful of people. Further, to maximize the cut-through of research, creative activity in each field should be concentrated in a small number of places in which the best people are gathered together. The paradox of research in a democracy is that everyone should be creative, or at least have the opportunity to practice creativity. Yet the really interesting research is always an elite activity. There is no ambiguity about this. Reality television does not make great art that will stand the test of time. Neither does a research policy focused on participation, not outcomes. Yet a widespread understanding of the nature and implications of research (the kind of understanding that only comes in sharing in the activity) is a vital safeguard, and lifts the level of social creativity.  Excellence is democracy. Democracy is excellence.

Paradox 6. The university produces global public goods subjected to national regulation.

In the end, the hardest paradox to deal with might be the last. The benefits of research in the university cannot be contained within national borders. The new mathematical formula, the breakthrough on solar heating, the palaeontologist who discovers that dinosaurs had feathers: all create global public goods, and their work finds its way everywhere. National governments would like to harness the university to their notion of the exclusively national public good – which more often than not means the rate of growth of national GDP – and to concentrate and restrict the university’s  benefits to the purposes to which they assign it. The university for its part, while paying lip service to the government as paymaster when it needs to, is wholly disdainful of the idea that its stage should be any narrower than that of the whole world.

But political economy matters and political economy is still national. The paradox is that the contribution of the university to the global public good is rendered through systems of funding and regulation that are wholly national in form, and controlled by governments largely or entirely indifferent to the good of the world as a whole (unless the matter concerned is one that sizeably and directly impacts their patch, like, say, an influenza outbreak). There is no global government with global policies to fund and regulate the university’s contribution to the global public good. While that contribution is real and instrumental to the fate of the world, it is also undefined and nebulous. And government funding and priority systems for organizing research always affect the university. Once again, as with public and private, this is a paradox of universal and particular.  A global universal good is national-particular, it seems. And we have to hope that national-particular is a global universal good.

Should we resolve the paradoxes of the university?

The temptation is to clarify the mission and roles of the university. To render it coherent in policy terms, if not moral terms. To decide once and for all to make the university modernist, engaged, public, non-market, non-elitist in research, and decidedly global.  Wait, would that be all of the above, but with excellence instead of democracy in research? Or would it be traditional and autonomous instead of modernist and engaged, so protecting the high academic values we have inherited? Or do we go for the neo-liberal package of modernist, engaged, private, market, excellent, and national… or, wait, should that be global?

To attempt to “resolve” these paradoxes is to start to unravel the University. Any such “resolution” is bound to reduce what the university does and is for to the creation of value, thus narrowing its social and political base. The discerning reader will have noted that in each paradox, one side of the paradox provides the conditions of possibility for the other. To chop off one side is to leave the other swinging free, without any visible means of support.

This suggests that, while there are tensions inherent in these paradoxes, rather than thinking of the paradoxes as contradictions (even as the “non-antagonistic contradictions” famously discussed by Mao Tse-Tung) it might better to think of them as necessary antinomies, as two ends that are part of a common system and each necessary, if we want the university to continue to survive and evolve.

This does not mean that any and every mix of these paradoxes is as good as every other. Or that all mixes are benign. It is possible for the university to become too elitist in knowledge creation or too focused on the private ends of itself and selected others, or too exclusively national in its view of the world, or too diffusely global while losing touch with its funding base. It is possible for national governments or industry to strangle the autonomy of the university, and it is possible for the university to disengage from all its clients. On the other hand, a university that served no private purposes, or fragmented its concentrations of expertise, or cut its ties with society to preserve its identity, would not last.

For many of us the central political rubric is democracy. For this the social promise attributed to the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité,”, is as good a starting point as any. To the extent that we bring norms to bear on the problem of  “The University” (an institution much older than the great revolution of 1789-1793), we can judge the university by its potential contribution to realizing  these three performance indicators in our time and in the foreseeable future. This does not mean we are obliged to re-engineer the university holus-bolus, and we would do so at our peril. It does suggest two tests we might usefully apply to its activities,  to the playing out of its paradoxes, and in tweaking the configuration of those paradoxes.

The first is the test of transparency. In the context of democracy as freedom, equality and solidarity, we can reasonably expect all of the activities of the university — old/new, engaged/separate, public/private, elite/mass-oriented, national/global — to be accessible to view and understanding. No secrets. This does not mean that all of the university can be or should be open to direct popular intervention or otherwise reduced to an instrument of one or another interpretation of the three mighty democratic goals. Still less does it mean that the university ought to be more politicized, for in some respects it is too politicized now. But it means that in a democratic society all that the university does should be common in visibility.

The second test is the test of free creativity. The university is, above all, about the creation, inculcation, and dissemination of knowledge. This is what distinguishes it from all other organizations. Within that, knowledge creation has a pre-eminent role. Locked in our present trajectory as we are, we must solve the problems that our past actions have created since the Neolithic revolution began. Arguably, without the university we cannot solve these problems or disseminate plausible solutions to them that are both publicly and privately effective. We can judge the university — and the configuration of its paradoxes — and our own efforts to support it and draw value from it, by the extent to which open and autonomous creativity flourishes within.

Simon Marginson is a professor in the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia. His most recent  book is Global Creation: Space, Mobility and Synchrony in the Age of the Knowledge economy (with Peter Murphy and Michael Peters), published in 2010  by Peter Lang in New York.