• Universities “More Than Just Agents of Economic Development”

    A former New Zealand vice-chancellor has cautioned that universities must be more than mere instruments of economic growth and development. Bryan Gould, former vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato and current chair of the board of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, issued his warning in opening the University of Auckland’s winter lecture series, “Challenges for research in modern academia”, earlier this week.

    Calling on universities to be vigilant not just in defending themselves against familiar threats, Mr Gould said, “They must also be alert to new challenges, which sometimes come in unfamiliar guises.” Expanding on the theme, he added that the danger today is not so much that universities are threatened by direct, hostile, and deliberate assaults by governments or the private sector, though it also must not be assumed that these were things of the past.

    “The threat arises from the growing importance that universities are increasingly invited to assume in promoting economic growth and development,” said Mr Gould, adding that commentators from across the political spectrum and from all parts of the economy have agreed that universities are essential agents of economic change.

    “Our economic future is increasingly said to depend on the research effort undertaken by our universities and by their role in producing graduates with the skills needed to promote economic growth,” he said. “This view is naturally 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 role is what universities are essentially about and that it is only to the extent that they fulfil that expectation that they will be supported and funded,” he said.

    Pointing to the dangers of the approach, he continued, “If it is asserted by political or business leaders that the universities have failed to come up with the required outcomes – that the economy is, for example, short of particular kinds of graduates or is handicapped by the failure to undertake particular kinds of research projects – then continued support and funding for the universities will be placed at risk.”

    He said that the problem, then, is that universities would 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 change. “In doing so, they would accept a barely recognised but increasingly damaging constraint on their freedom to pursue knowledge – and we would have significantly misread our own intellectual history,” he concluded.