Researcher: Universities have become assembly lines that make us dumber than we need to be
COMMENT: Scientific ideals have been replaced by market mechanisms. Knowledge has become a commodity, and the university is like any other profit-driven company, a researcher writes.
Once upon a time, universities were independent, truth-seeking institutions. A place where society's ideals of optimisation, production and revenue did not mean a thing. A place where research took the time that research takes.
Up until the end of the 20th century, European universities were founded on these Humboldtian ideals that stem from the beginning of the 1800s (from Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the humanist university, whose independence is secured by state funding).
However, in 1999, research ministers in the EU signed a Magna Charta Universitatum in Bologna, which definitively disrupted the Humboldtian ideal and directed European universities toward business mindedness, competition, internationalisation and individual financing.
Rather than independent research and education, it is now a question of 'benchmarking' (comparison to other universities), 'impact' and 'performance'.
The ideal of a free, independent university
The university model that served as the ideal during the 19th and 20th centuries was drafted in 1809 by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Humboldt aspired to develop a modern university that was completely bereft of economic, religious and all sorts of external interests. The knowledge production of the university was to be governed solely by scientific principles – i.e., the quality was to be surveyed and guaranteed by professional academics.
Humboldt based his university on the idea of the autonomy and independence of the sciences. The only measure of the knowledge that the university produced was to be the peer-reviewed science itself.
Being able to judge the scientific quality of research projects is very complex and requires a great deal of knowledge and insight into the specific field. It is therefore necessary that scientific peers are the ones to do so.
The state that funds universities is supposed to guarantee and enforce this freedom – while maintaining an arm's length principle.
Humboldt's model was first implemented at the University of Berlin (now Humboldt-Universität) and gradually became a role model for universities around the world.
Education of perpetual students
The Humboldtian university was driven by an educational ideal that is somewhat different from what prevails at universities today. It is based on the idea of 'Bildung', that is, the acquisition of knowledge without this knowledge necessarily having a functional purpose.
Instead, the concept contains a moral dimension and aims to strengthen the student’s humanist attitude. As such, the educational process is not finished upon graduation from the university.
It is a question of ‘lifelong learning’ but in a somewhat different form than the one we are familiar with today where society or the corporate world is constantly demanding new, vocational skills that the educational system must deliver.
Humboldt was actually quite explicit about the fact that universities should not develop practical skills but educate people who, over the course of their lives, grow in terms of wisdom and morals. The university is part of this life-long journey rather than being an isolated place that equips someone with a defined knowledge targeted at a job.
From this perspective, the 'perpetual student' is not an insult– quite the opposite.
The concept of 'time' is not a relevant measure for studies or the work of universities at all – in the Humboldtian university, measuring students’ knowledge after one module or asking scholars what they will publish in two years’ time would have seemed absolutely ridiculous.
When science is the only parameter of evaluation, it is the criteria proper to science – and here, unpredictability is exactly one of the most central criteria – that decide. At the end of the day, research takes time.
Researchers stood on the shoulders of their predecessors
This ‘self-sufficiency’, which is the hallmark of independent research, also has an impact on our understanding of the past. The slower pace and considerably fewer publications, which were inevitable results of independent research, meant that the important articles (which are often also the result of independent research) would have a much longer life span than they have today.
The journalistic news criterion had no relevance whatsoever in this 'bubble' of immersion and reflection, which instead created its own succession of researchers whose past contributions may have remained valid and important.
In this way, a form of 'academic pedigree' was established where specific approaches and methods were inherited from the scientific 'father' to the scientific 'son' (it was a man's world) – and each researcher had a greater sense of being a part of a long chain of scientific tradition than of being an individual genius.
This type of institution is, of course, organisationally weak since such institutions are actually not very organised – now and again they are labelled ‘organisational anarchy’ – at least through the lens of contemporary management theory.
From an anarchist ivory tower...
Humboldt highlighted the ideal of science as the sole criterion of evaluation as a modern alternative to the earlier forms of knowledge production carried out during the patronage of the 17th and 18th centuries, where researchers were dependent either on the whims of different sponsors or the dogmas of the church.
Instead, Humboldt hailed pure scientific expertise and successfully strengthened science as a special and essential quality of knowledge.
Researchers became the personification of the eternal quest for knowledge, and knowledge was increasingly defined in scientific terms, while non-scientific knowledge was considered dubious, subjective – or simply non-knowledge.
The university as an institution gained legitimacy as a world of its own with its own values and rules. A professorship at the university ensured social status by virtue of the knowledge held by the person, and the use of professors as witnesses, curators and the like became widespread because they were considered pillars of society.
It also helped promote humanist values that were focused on edification, the 'shaping of character' and the value of knowledge itself.
... to market-oriented management
The Humboldtian ideals were allowed to live and reign for almost 200 years – until 1999, when EU research ministers, as mentioned above, signed a Magna Charta Universitatum and redirected European universities towards business, competition, internationalisation and self-financing.
This led to a complete change in the identity of universities. And that was not all – new ideals of competition, ideas and perceptions of the need for visible leadership and management from the university administration surfaced
The university’s self-understanding and structure starts to look like that of corporate culture – no more 'organisational anarchy' from the knowledge culture!
Knowledge as a commodity the universities churn out
When scientific independence is sacrificed in favour of economic demands, knowledge becomes a commodity that universities produce and supply in competition with one another. From that moment onwards, the university is therefore no longer a special world but an entirely common, profit-driven organisation, operating under market conditions.
This entry into the brave new world of corporate culture has a number of consequences that reverse the ideals of the classical university.
First of all, it requires quantification of time so that production costs can be measured, and universities are subsequently very concerned with measuring the use of time.
How many hours and minutes does it take to prepare a lecture? How many publications can a researcher produce within a period of x years? At what point in the process does a publication count as such?
Time and money become the focal point of activities, just as in any other factory: can teaching be carried out at a lower cost? What kind of exam can minimise costs? Etc., etc.
From here on, teaching is understood as the dissemination of some measurable skills to provide the students with jobs after their graduation. The old, timeless and 'purposeless' edification process, subject only to its own logic, is now broken up into many small, measurable and targeted modules.
The past has lost its significance
This paradigm shift means that the historical perspective of standing on the shoulders of your predecessors, previously so important in the production of knowledge, is no longer relevant at all. The core quality of knowledge today is rather that it is ‘new’ – ‘old’ knowledge is worthless.
This devaluation of existing knowledge results in students losing historical insight (which may be convenient enough, since such insight could equip them to withstand the commercialisation of the never-ending news in knowledge production).
A complete reversal of the university's raison d'être has taken place, and when senior researchers today talk about their work 15-20 years ago, it is a completely different world they remember. But that past is not of much use in a contemporary context.
The modern management university has completely lost sight of the importance of the past – it only has its eternal present, where new knowledge must constantly be produced in competition with others so that the university can 'perform' and generate 'impact'.
The concept of knowledge has almost become meaningless
In reality, there is not even an actual present anymore, as departments are dragged through one major upheaval after another – accreditations, restructurings, strategy developments, new management etc. – and when the past is constantly being eroded, it also has consequences for the present, which simply 'shrinks'.
Many sociological studies of time have dealt with this phenomenon, known as 'point time', i.e., how rapid, continuous changes lead to past and present becoming one – which is in fact the same as a 'standstill'. The more this standstill spreads, the hollower the universities' promotion of 'scientific progress' and 'cutting-edge' results appears.
The tidal wave of publications, which is a natural consequence of the 'point time' condition, further helps to undermine the concept of knowledge and makes it almost void.
After all, no one can digest the huge supply of 'new knowledge', and in this jumble, the acquisition of real knowledge is therefore also more or less arbitrary – both for researchers and lay people.
The transitional phase has become permanent
This permanent 'contemporaneity' creates what in anthropology is called liminality, that is, a transitional phase characterised by the structures of the past having been dismantled and the structures of the new phase not yet being fully in place.
It is typically a period of time that is also a vacuum because great uncertainty prevails – but it can also contain the possibility of reinventing itself. However, this is only the case if the liminal phase comes to an end within a bearable time span – the liminality must not become permanent. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened at many universities today, where the accumulation of knowledge is being devalued and more and more time-limited, precarious (insecure) work relations are being established.
This is how many academics currently experience their work life, and it is as far away from the 'old' idea of the 'modern university' as one can possibly get!
Translated by Stine Zink Kaasgaard