What are universities for? The question at the heart of the academic mission has been given added urgency by education secretary Charles Clarke. Gordon Graham, professor of philosophy at Aberdeen University, argues that its true value is its contribution to public discourse and intellectual life.
Since the early 1980s, the universities of Britain have faced an onslaught of government-inspired reviews, initiatives and directives. It began with Margaret Thatcher and has continued almost without pause to the present day. All political parties, it seems, feel able to tell universities how they should be run, what they should be for, who they should admit and what their research should be devoted to. Every so often a line in a speech will reassert the importance of institutional autonomy as a necessary safeguard for academic freedom, but this is rarely more than ritual; its assertion seems quite compatible with yet more political directives.
The general thrust of these directives has become plain - the advancement of economic prosperity and the promotion of social inclusion - and the education secretary's recent widely quoted remarks on this are nothing more than the repetition of a familiar utilitarian theme. Some voices have been raised in protest to defend the pursuit of "truth for its own sake", but the fact is that these are in the minority, easily dismissed as old fashioned and lacking authority.
Although vice-chancellors can be heard from time to time complaining about government policies, almost invariably these protests are to do with demanding more financial resources; there is rarely any express challenge to the general preconception of what such financial resources are for.
And yet it is not hard to raise serious critical questions about the twin goals that are so easily and frequently appealed to as the rationale for government-supported universities. The heart of the issue is this: economic prosperity and social inclusion may be very good things to strive for, but why should anyone suppose that universities are well suited to serve them? Their origins are in education, not in economic or social engineering, so what would equip them for this newly imposed role?
This point works two ways. On the one hand, there is little evidence that those who want to promote economic growth and social equality have good reason to put their faith in universities to achieve them. On the other, some of the finest and most impressive intellectual and educational accomplishments that universities can lay claim to are completely useless from this point of view. The work of Isaac Newton and Immanuel Kant, to name two of the greatest luminaries, contributes nothing to economic prosperity and social inclusion. And if it did, this would be a mere side benefit. To think otherwise would be like supposing that the chief value of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is to be found in the (not inconsiderable) employment it has generated in printing and bookbinding for more than 200 years, or that Newton is to be held in high esteem because his fame has contributed to Cambridge's conference and tourist trade (which it may well have done).
To my mind, remarks such as these are little more than stating the obvious. Yet they very rarely cut much ice with either the universities' political masters or the voting public. Why not? The answer is twofold, I think. First, British academics, and especially academic managers, have long since fallen into the attitude of following the money and hoping for Brownie points. When funding councils (and others) put money into special initiatives, or set down "conditions of grant", no one on the university side wants to say: "That is not what we do and not what we are qualified to do, so, thank you, but we will decline your offer." After all, salaries have to be paid. At the same time, academics have constantly inclined to the idea that, if they go along with these initiatives and conditions, sooner or later they will win the approval of their paymasters, who will then come to respect their autonomous purposes.
If that is the strategy, it constitutes a dramatic failure to exercise the sort of critical faculty that universities are supposed to inculcate in their students. We now have 20 years of consistent evidence that the effect of what has been called "the pre-emptive cringe" is not approval and appropriate reward followed by a return to semi-independence, but rather a reduction in resources, diminished respect and even more political direction and control.
The second source of silent acquiescence is the uncertainty that arises from self-doubt. What are universities for? How can we justify our activities? It is said that a traditional Cambridge University toast runs:
"Here's to pure mathematics. May it never be any use." This seems wilfully to cock a snook at the world beyond universities and invokes all the worst connotations of the ivory tower while raising the hackles of the taxpayer.
Yet, if the truth be told, from the point of view of creating employment, improving healthcare and increasing the life chances of children born into poverty (all the things dearest to successive governments and the taxpaying public), pure mathematics is useless. What then is to be said on its behalf - and on behalf of all the other "useless" subjects that universities teach and study? The trouble with appeals to "university autonomy" at this point in the argument is that they seem inward-looking, hence unable in principle to generate any grounds for social and financial support. Let those who want to devote themselves to the study of ancient Assyria do so, but let them pay for it themselves.
There is, however, another line of argument to be pursued. Despite the dominance of economic prosperity as a political goal, societies do not live by bread and circuses alone, or even equal opportunities. They also have an intellectual life, a life embodied in art galleries, museums, libraries and concert-going, and in a newspaper-reading public that buys books, watches television documentaries, listens to radio discussions and attends lectures. Crucially, this is the dimension of social life that sustains political debate in a broad sense and provides the forum in which opinion is formed and critical watchfulness maintained. It is a part of social life that needs stimulus and maintenance no less than the commercial sector, and it is here, in my view, that a defence of universities and public spending on them is to be mounted.
If universities and what goes on in them, whether teaching or research, were to be reduced through selective funding or government policy to the utilitarian function of knowledge transfer for economic benefit, or educational strategies for greater social equality, it is not merely the autonomous intellectual purposes of universities themselves that would be threatened. Society in general would be impoverished, starved of the injection of intellectual capital so many of its finest manifestations require.
The aim of economic policy is to make us more prosperous, but its success merely raises the question of what we are to spend our increased prosperity on. Social inclusion, if it works, extends the opportunity to engage in worthwhile things, but this presupposes that there are such things to engage in. It is at this second level, not the first, that universities can be expected to make a major contribution and where a defence of their social value is to be mounted. In short, there are real social benefits that flow from a flourishing university system but they are not to be captured in terms of either gross domestic product or standardised measures of social inclusion.
Gordon Graham is regius professor of moral philosophy, University of Aberdeen, and author of Universities: The Recovery of an Idea .