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On the fundamental uselessness of universities

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Information, 2004

Of the 85 European organisations which have existed continuously since medieval times, 70 are universities. The oldest is the University of Bologna, founded as an institution independent of church and state under emperor Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire. This was no mean achievement in the 12th century.

Today, the greatest problem for universities is not posed by the Church. In the last decades, their struggle has consisted in retaining their independence, not in relation to church and state, but in relation to state and market. The outlook is, if anything, bleaker now than it was some eight centuries ago.

People who meet university employees these days may have noticed that they complain more than most. Many of them are surrounded with an aura of vague discontent. They are unable to find time for research, they say; their salaries have declined relative to other professions, they have lost prestige, and they are being constantly hassled by meaningless reforms introduced by politicians who don’t have the vaguest idea about the purpose of a university.

The complaints are understandable. Today’s universities are an altogether different kind of institution from what they were only a generation ago. All Western countries have seen a rapid growth of student numbers since the second world war, much of it in the last two decades. My faculty was built in the 1960s to accommodate a maximum of 2,500 persons, staff and students. In the last few years, the number of people actually based at the faculty has been hovering around the 8,000 mark.

It is difficult to argue against the view that higher education should be a democratic right, but it would be nonsense to claim that the intellectual standard should be kept constant given this development. Teachers have less time per student, and the students are a more mixed batch than earlier.

In parallel, politicians try to make the universities more efficient, in accordance with the gospel of New Public Management. Many countries have now introduced quantitative techniques for ‘measuring’ the efficiency of academics, and have finally made the long-expected connection between funding and productivity, measured in student credits and publications. The universities become a kind of industrial enterprise.

The rationale for these transformations is not just plain unreason and anti-intellectualism. It is an unquestionably good thing that fishermen’s children from Finnmark and farmers’ children from southern Jutland should be encouraged to study. Besides, there is no reason why university staff should not be forced to document how they spend their working time. In the old days, not a few professors were smugly settled in a state of permanent hibernation. Pressure is now put on them to do something really useful, which is fine.

Yet universities cannot be evaluated as though they were factories. The reason is simply that their usefulness cannot be measured. As opposed to vocational colleges, universities have a duty to deliver useless knowledge, which is to say knowledge which is not tailored to meet a particular need, and which can therefore be used for any purpose. Under the current regime, we are approaching a situation where universities have become efficient production units, often with a healthy growth on a number of objective indicators, but unable to produce anything of lasting value.

One of the most serious problems, and a main reason why university employees complain so much, can be described as an unintended consequence of the rapid growth. A fair number of us spend an increasing amount of time on what we might call non-meriting professional work. With a growing pressure to increase one’s production of written work, and a concomitant growth in the number of qualified applicants for each vacant position, a substantial part of the average academic’s working day is spent on committee work, refereeing for journals and publishers, evaluation of other departments, and of course, e-mail, that curse of contemporary office life.

Since research can only be done slowly, the production of new knowledge has a poor starting-point in this efficiency-driven world, where everybody is not only expected to produce more student credits and more publications than last year, but also to participate in continuous ‘quality control’ of others.

Something arguably had to be done about the universities. The politicians’ mistake consisted in the belief that the universities could be salvaged through becoming visibly useful. The whole point about universities is that they can be useful only in so far as they are useless. Besides, it is a value in itself that there are a few people, scattered in European cities, who read Sanskrit fluently, and that others are remunerated by the taxpayers to think, talk and write about Australian kinship or Renaissance art. The utility of having such people around is beyond dispute, but it cannot be measured. The meaning of universities consists in their uselessness, but it is now time for them to find new ways of being useless. A return to the 19th century Humboldt university, with a few hundred students from elite backgrounds and a few dozen teachers, is neither realistic nor desirable.

At the moment, university employees are well on their way to becoming musicians who have been instructed to play twice as fast, so that productivity can be increased. And it is partly our own fault. So far, we have done little else than complaining about the present, without offering any other alternative than the past. A vision is needed, and time is getting scarce.