• Universities Are More Than Instruments of Government Policy



    Like so many of my generation, I was the first person in my family to go to university.  In one way or another, though, universities have played a big part in my life.  I was an undergraduate at Victoria and Auckland Universities, then a postgraduate student at Balliol College, Oxford, then later a Fellow and law don at Worcester College, Oxford, a Visiting Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, a Council member of La Trobe University, Melbourne, and finally Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University, back in my own country.

    That long acquaintance with those august institutions has reinforced in me the belief – virtually a given in democratic countries  – that universities are centrally important to the new thinking, and the challenge to the existing order, that are essential characteristics of free societies.

    It is no accident that universities are one of the first targets of repressive tyrants across the world.  Universities, in other words, are not only exemplars and champions of the freedom to think – their own academic freedom must always be defended because it is always on the line.

    As was famously said, perhaps by Thomas Jefferson, though precisely by whom is often disputed, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.  Whoever first said it matters little; the warning is plain enough.  Universities everywhere must always be quick to recognise the attempts made by dictators and even, on occasion, democratic governments, to shackle those who dare to think outside the approved parameters.

    In a democratic country like New Zealand, universities do not on the whole face direct challenges of that kind.  But they must always be alert to new challenges, which can sometimes come in unfamiliar guises.

    The threat today is not so much from direct and deliberate assaults from governments, or even from the private sector, though it must not be assumed that these are things of the past.  The modern threat arises from the growing and central role that universities are increasingly invited, even required, to assume, as virtually instruments of government, in promoting economic development.

    It is argued across the political spectrum and from all parts of the economy that our economic future increasingly depends on the research effort undertaken by our universities and on their role in producing graduates with the skills needed to promote economic growth.  Any supposed failures in these respects are severely lambasted by ministers and others.

    This view of their role is in some respects congenial to the universities, since it affirms their value to society and appears to guarantee at least an approximation of adequate funding.  But the argument comes with an unstated but potentially damaging downside – that this is what universities are essentially about and that it is only if they meet those expectations that they will be supported and funded.

    The danger then is that universities will find themselves compelled to follow particular paths to particular outcomes or, in other words, to give priority to what government demands of them.  They might then be tempted – so as to maintain continued public support and funding – to go along with the inviting but dangerous assumption that their only true value is as instruments of economic development.  They would thereby seem to accept a barely recognised but increasingly damaging constraint on their freedom to pursue knowledge for its own sake – and we would have significantly misread our own intellectual history.

    The great seminal idea that has underpinned the whole concept of human progress since the Renaissance is that knowledge is unlimited, that the search for knowledge can be undertaken by anyone (and not just by the rich and powerful), and that it usually involves a voyage into uncharted waters.  Some of the greatest advances in human history have come about, unexpectedly, as a result of enquiring minds.

    If universities were to limit themselves only to those voyages whose destinations were identified in advance, this would mean not only a significant constraint on academic freedom but would close the door on some of the most exciting and rewarding contributions that universities are able to make across the board to the total well-being of our society.

    Here’s my suggested New Year’s resolution.  If we want universities to “think for New Zealand”, let us insist that they have the freedom to do so.

    Bryan Gould

    6 January 2017


  1. Patricia says: January 10, 2017 at 10:51 pmReply

    I agree wholeheartedly Bryan. We live in a world where students are products of a political belief. They are not taught anything that contradicts that belief. For instance I understand that the history of economics is no longer taught as such and if it is only in sneering or belittling way. Economics is taught as if it were a mathematical fact rather than a discipline that is taught in a mathematical way in order to destroy understandings of other economic beliefs. From what I have heard anyone who wants the funding to research other economic beliefs is denied that funding. I do believe we are living in very frightening and dangerous times – very similar to how we used to describe the USSR.

  2. Bryan Gould says: January 11, 2017 at 12:19 amReply

    Thanks Patricia. We need to open people’s eyes to what is happening. Bryan