What do universities actually do?

Following items in Times Higher Education, good friends currently correspond on Twitter concerning first-hand experiences working in different universities in the USA, Germany, and the UK.

I’ve long thought that what is missing from discussion of topics such “management” and “value for money” is an agreed description of what is a university’s output or “product”.  Without this, how can we have any idea of effectiveness in deployment of input?  There seems to be some confusion. I can recall the question going back to to the first UK Research Assessment Exercise in 1986, which followed The Jarratt Report.  I seem to recall Jarratt being quoted as saying that the loudest objections to the idea of university “management” came from departments notorious for “old Spanish practices”.  I think good and honest Spaniards might well have a phrase about “old English practices” with equal justification, and this is not just my attempt at being PC.  Anyway, in the department where I worked at that time, I felt I could see exactly what Jarratt had in mind, whichever nationality he chose to sleight.  Public money was underwriting personal fiefdoms, thinly disguised protection rackets, and arms for endless and pointless wars over who owned which particular piece of academic territory – what should be taught and researched, and by whom.  I was temporarily away in a superb US university, and wished my own UK institution would just grow up and get on with the job.

But what exactly is the job?

A decade later than Jarratt, and in Sweden where the same confusion and waste seemed to hold sway, I found that an eminent German visitor had had exactly the same thought as mine.  ”Well, what is all this actually for?” I asked rhetorically.  ”What is our product?”

“We have a product” he replied with conviction.  ”It is knowledge“.

Back in the UK, I more recently wrote the following as a sort of short manifesto.  It didn’t command much support. Another candidate had read my piece, I think, and his own popular manifesto was emphatic that a university does not have a product. One gathered that it was somehow degrading to think so. He was elected with a clear majority.  I didn’t mind. He seems to be doing good job to this day.

So, brief manifesto, as follows.  What is so controversial?

Universities have a product. This product is knowledge. Research produces new knowledge. Teaching distributes it. Successful universities produce and distribute a quality product at a competitive price. Research requires freedom, supportive infrastructure, cooperation, communication, trust. Teaching requires the promotion of existing knowledge within an open society where nothing is beyond question.

24 Replies to “What do universities actually do?”

  1. Thank you, Fanis. Being a klutz with an iPhone, my off-the-cuff discourse on the meaning of “knowledge” is now lost to posterity. This could be a good thing. My apologies, nonetheless.

    By “price” I mean all costs. Effort, time, money, energy, food, materials, services, “infrastructure”, etc. These are inputs. My question is; what is the output?

    It seemed to me at the time of Jarratt that the university of which I was then a member was very badly managed indeed. If, instead of x, its product had been biscuits or passenger vehicles then it would have gone out of business, and quickly.

    Any product is surely most effectively produced and distributed by people who see, correctly, that their individual and personal goals are met by working together. I do not see how this is possible if they do not share an understanding of the value of x. We are all human, and humans are social animals.

    It is therefore important to know what is x. I suggest that, for a university, x = knowledge.

    We are both aware that this suggestion is highly unpopular with people who describe themselves as university managers, and there are proportionately many more of these today than there were previously. These people speak of such things as business plans, strategies, performance management, metrics, and various kinds of league tables.

    Meanwhile, nearly thirty years after Jarratt, little has changed.

    To rephrase my question: what are universities for?

    Or; what is a university?

    There is a fascinating article in History and Policy: “The ‘Idea of a University’ today” by Robert Anderson.

    I think Anderson’s essential point is that “university” now means a number different things, and one can distinguish these. This is still a newish state of affairs, at least in the U.K. There are dilemmas, and choices to be made – no single institution can meet all expectations.  A modern “Humboldt” model would be my strong preference.

    A few years ago I had a shot at how to promote research, and at defining “knowledge”, in an opinion piece for Future Medicinal Chemistry: “Research and how to promote it in a university”.

    We certainly need a clear idea of what counts as research, and of how to promote it and succeed at it. This, too, is a practical question, not just a subject for debate.  One cannot build a strategy for something elusive, undefined, or just plain wrong.

  2. I should read the Jarrat Report, but I have not found the time to do so. May I say that it was not the noun “price” that bothered me but the adjective you chose, “competitive”.

    My view is that knowledge creation (to use the Queen Mary mission statement jargon) requires the right balance between collaboration and competition, and generous support (the price).

    I see in your brief paragraph immediately after the words I suggested should be deleted that you agree and the idea of communities of scholars getting together to pursue knowledge creation and dissemination, may be the defining point of a university.

    How to best support universities and enable humanity to pay the price? And how many universities do we want in existence?

    1. Thanks. Good questions all. I’d ask “how to best support universities and enable humanity to reap the benefit?”

      I think we agree on most points. Systems with internal components in conflict are surely less effective, and so more expensive for a given output, than ones where all components co-operate.

      One could liken certain universities we know to a car being driven with the handbrake on. I could only see that being useful to drivers who mistake heavy fuel consumption for high performance; taking it as a “proxy”, perhaps. Which it might be when averaged over a large number of different models all with handbrakes off. Furthermore, some people take pleasure in boasting about how much they consume.

  3. The Wikipedia entry under “Jarratt Report” says:

    ‘The Jarratt report was an inquiry into British higher education published in 1985. While delivered during the Thatcher era, it was commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. The report viewed Universities as enterprises not unlike a factory, and in which students were the customer. Concomitantly, academics were viewed less as a self-governing group seeking to expand knowledge and more as shop-floor deliverers of education, subject to performance indicators. Organizational-functions, similarly, were viewed as need dedicated managers, with transfer of these roles from academics to these managers. The adoption of the report led to the abolition of academic tenure. It has been argued that the report thus laid the ground for the increase of managerialism in the academy.It has also been stated that since the report, it has become explicit State policy that university staff are paid to help their employers compete against sister institutions, rather than to serve wider ends.’

    I don’t often cite Wikipedia, but this entry is a fair statement of both the intentions and the eventual results of the change. We can add that in 1988 tenure was officially abolished, that is all academic staff became sackable for “economic reasons” (in addition to misconduct) upon promotion. If you kept your rank, you kept your tenure (this was a significant issue during Option C, as many of us were still Lecturers). At the time Jarratt passed without much notice, as British universities were engaged in a prolonged financial crisis that had started in the early 1970s and which continued until about 1990. The crisis involved reductions in per capita funding for students without the flexibility to increase recruitment and (for staff) a serious reduction in the value of salaries eventually amounting to some 40% compared with equivalent professional groups. The crisis was relieved in steps, by increases in student recruitment (eventually a doubling or more) and boosts in research funding under the Tories and real improvements in money for students (partly from increased fees) and salaries under Labour from 1997 onwards.

    However, when we “woke up” from the long financial crisis we found that the national interest (for the most part narrowly but inconsistently perceived) had replaced free enquiry as the proximate premise in the minds of the politicians who allocated us money, and further that the internal hierarchy of universities which had previously been a light touch academic supervision had become a line-management of dedicated administrators of varying competence and varying sympathy with the traditional roles of the academy. This process continues, with the conflicts and tensions now familiar to us. A central principle of line management is that each person is answerable to an identified supervisor for their duties and performance, and this applies as much to academic staff as to cleaners.

    Under the circumstances, therefore, it is impossible for most institutions to dedicate themselves to the production and dissemination of knowledge, because the managerial priority is to compete with other institutions under rules that have subjugated the pursuit of knowledge per se to subordinate status. Also, the system is now huge, with the government aspiring to provide some form of higher education to half the population in a country which has one of the worst per capita public debt in the world. So how can so many institutions be supported in traditional roles? The Jarratt process is not yet complete, as its logical outcome (and one which the neoliberal theorists are still toying with, and not for the first time) is the demise and closure of individual institutions or component parts deemed to be failing. As with schools, so with departments and possibly whole universities. At this point, of course, reckless policy will have become madness, but how might the situation be retrieved?

    The human spirit can be suppressed but not extinguished, so it is quite possible the primary pursuit of custody of knowledge will re-emerge in another guise or another institutional framework or migrate to another country. Those will be interesting times.

    1. Thank you, David.

      Perhaps I and others were duped in 1985. I seemed to me reasonable at the time, even a high priority, that something should be done about the evident in efficiency (I’d prefer “ineffectiveness”) of the university in which I then worked, and, by inference, that of others. In any event, one would have to know what counts as output and input in order to improve things. I doubt that the immense wasted time and energy we see today were Jarratt’s intention. I don’t recall anyone proposing the growth of a class of managers who are not, themselves, active and distinguished researchers and teachers. Perhaps autonomy, as enunciated by Robbins (1963) and before, was taken for granted?

      I’ve recently had cause to consult the UNESCO “Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel” of 1997.


      Wikipedia entry:

      The principles set out in the UNESCO Recommendation are completely at variance with the management and governance we experience. Nevertheless, it is my institution’s reference for “Academic Freedom”.

      To quote from our HR Codes of Practice:

      “The College undertakes not to infringe the academic freedom of its academic staff. 
If an academic employee claims that action taken against them under one of the Codes of Practice results from their exercising academic freedom, the issue will be considered by a panel constituted as set out on page 9.”

      “In any dispute about interpretation, the Charter and Ordinances take priority over the Codes of Practice.”

      To quote from the Ordinances:

      “Where there is any issue as to the meaning of ‘academic freedom’ in any proceedings under these Ordinances, regard shall be had to Sections VI and VII of the Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris on 11 November 1997.”

      The UNESCO Report came twelve years after the Jarratt Report.

      What on Earth has happened to UNESCO’s sound recommendations? What went wrong?

      Has abnegation of academic freedom taken place in all UK universities? Has it taken place in other countries, too?

      In my view, academic freedom is essential for efficiency/effectiveness. That derives from the nature of our product – knowledge. No-one ever discovered anything under duress.

      Is this view naïve?

  4. A colleague, formerly at Johns Hopkins University, drew our attention to:

    Academic Freedom | Office of the Provost | The Johns Hopkins University


    It is in the public domain, as are my links.

    Let me also flag, here:

    Remedying failures of corporate management in UK universities
    A submission to the Institute for Public Policy Research Commission on the Future of Higher Education in England. 27 September 2012.
    by David Bignell, Larissa Fradkin, Gavin Vinson, John Allen and Rachel Ashworth


  5. No, the desire to have academic freedom is not naivety, it’s what makes us get up in the morning and go to our jobs in universities, or to our basement studies to continue our writing should the teaching timetable permit. About the time you were disgruntled with another British university, I was in the middle of enjoying a long period of academic freedom which started in Exeter University and continued in Westfield College and then at the old Queen Mary College until about 2002. The evidence of this is in the resulting publications; the grant income, by contrast, was modest but just adequate, though by today’s standards it would be considered failure. Since 2002, I have only been able to sustain an element of academic freedom by guerilla tactics, and on borrowed time as the performance managers delayed their attack until the year after I left, though the tabula rasa has returned to some extent in retirement. As most people outside the academy see it, academic freedom is the right to hold controversial opinions within the law. In our area this might for example embrace Creationism or a belief in the heritability of homosexuality, but i suspect it doesn’t include the right to work unfunded on the mitochondria of, say, archezoans, when you could compete for and consume millions of pounds in an attempt to immobilise all the enzymes of photosynthesis on a single silicon chip. It’s one aspect of the slow national decline, perhaps; hard to perceive as it happens but doubtless clear in the cold light of some future historian’s thesis.

    So, we have become scientific civil servants. Ironic, as the people we once did recognise with this title have been made redundant in droves from non-university research laboratories that were once the leading institutions of their kind in the world, and the survivors driven into universities.

  6. I might have picked the wrong example of free enquiry, since archezoans don’t have mitochondria. In the first few years after completing my PhD I tried very hard to move over to applied science, but the job market was so weak I found that universities were still the only place I could find any kind of employment. This was uncomfortable until my research took off at Exeter, and after that I crossed a threshold where I could not imagine any life other than the academic one. By and large I have not been disappointed, although only my seniority and experience allowed me to survive the final decade until retirement. I had two serious job offers outside the academy: one to work for the medical company Johnson and Johnson (Baby Powder, Band-Aid, Listerine etc.) on the analysis of research data and the other to join my father’s business in the shoe trade. Johnson and Johnson offered a salary one half of what I earned as a temporary lecturer in Toronto. Hanging on in the academic world was the right decision, though the attendant obsessions and insecurity eventually broke up my first marriage.

    I have always noticed how little people outside the academy understand of academic ideals. This includes close family. My first father-in-law referred to to the University of Nottingham as a place where people went to “muck about” at the taxpayers expense, and never changed this view. My own father always greeted the start of each university vacation with the question “are you on your holidays now?”. This was not a joke or a parody. He could not conceive that 20 weeks of unstructured time was other than a paid furlough, nor did he ever understand the relationship between research and teaching, despite having a son who did both. Oddly, these simplistic attitudes are now manifesting themselves in our managers, which illustrates their inadequacy or dishonesty, or both.

    1. Thank you, David. I understand and agree with all you write – except the comment about mitochondria of archaezoa. You were right first time and debating “what is a mitochondrion?” might look like evasion, but it is not. Some courageous people have changed our understanding. All eukaryotes either have, or had, mitochondria.

      Does this matter? Yes it does. Yesterday I had the honour of attending a small celebration of the ninetieth birthday of one of the discoverers of genetic linkage between haemophilia and red-green colour blindness. The explanation now seems obvious, but it then required radical new theories that have become foundations of what we think we know today. I’ll try to post a photo from the reception.

      Mucking about at the taxpayer’s expense. Try Braben et al. In today’s Guardian for a commentary.


      Our fathers would have understood, given concrete examples of unexpected benefits such as radar, antibiotics, and a host of other things that saved lives; perhaps their own, and ours.

  7. Excellent letter. Does Simon Gaskell read The Guardian, I wonder? Do the CEOs of the Research Councils? As for Guardian readers …… I believe the more graduates we produce the tighter the straightjacket that is placed around science. Partial knowledge allows the link between research and benefit to mankind to be accepted but then jettisons the mechanism for breaking orthodoxy …. by imposing line management and excessive review. Unfortunately, there are too many vested interests incorporated into the levers of power and I find it hard to see how once established this will ever be resolved.

  8. “He seems to be doing good job to this day.”


    The same person has contracted the disease, and mutated into a senior manager. Infection was asymptomatic while progression has been rapid, rather like haemorrhagic fever.

    Academics see this phenomenon and shun contact with managers for fear of infection with managerialism, for which there is no known cure.

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