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the fundamental uselessness of universities
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
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
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’
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.