27 November 2006

What are universities for?

Letter from Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University to the Financial Times:

Competition in higher education is an excellent thing, but some of those quoted in your recent articles do not understand universities. A successful university has to make losses. For that reason, it must be supported by philanthropy or taxation.

First, our universities do not exist to discover how to make a quieter car, a brighter lipstick, or even a more informative newspaper. That is what companies are for. Much discussion in the UK over the past decade has suggested how valuable it is for universities to create commercial spin-offs and to license new patents. Such views are wrong.

Second, universities are not high schools for people who are older than 18. They do not exist primarily to educate.

Third, the main role of universities in a society is to find out new ideas and give them away. It is therefore a mistake to tell universities to make money or encourage them to set up private-training arms. Their job is to uncover those things that matter to the emotional prosperity of our world but that intrinsically will not be discovered by commercial organisations.

The carmaker and the lipstick designer both rely on basic chemistry. Yet they would never have paid for the periodic table. Society needs universities, moreover, as centres of wisdom that, when a globe is heating up, or a war is being considered, or a public health service is being designed, can do what they and no commercial organisation can do – to provide answers that are disinterested.

Outstanding universities cannot be for profit. They matter more than that.

In practice, a university exists for the promotion of an ideology. It does not exist so that people can get qualifications that will be of any real use to them, and it does not exist for the advancement of science. It exists as a centre for the dissemination of ideas which will contribute to the 'emotional prosperity of the world' - i.e. the downfall of civilisation and the abolition of individual liberty.

According to Professor Oswald, a university is a 'centre of wisdom' that is totally 'disinterested'. Those concerned in disseminating the wisdom are well provided with salary and status as socially-appointed disseminators of wisdom, and are able to be undistracted by a need to derive any other benefits for themselves or for any other individual from the application of their advice to important arrangements. In other words, they are completely free to accelerate the rush to destruction, on a global basis, of the human race.

’We appeal for £1m as initial funding for a social science department in our unrecognised and unsupported independent university. This would enable it to publish analyses of the unexamined assumptions underlying current discussion of the philosophy of education.’ Charles McCreery, DPhil