Universities in Europe are losing their “monopoly” over the production of research, but gaining dominance in the training of PhD students, according to a leading scholar in political economy.
Ove Kaj Pedersen, professor of comparative political economy at Copenhagen Business School, said higher education institutions are now competing with private organisations for “resources”, “attention” and political influence around knowledge production.
He said this means universities’ main capital is not research, but “training and education of qualified PhDs” for the private sector.
Professor Pedersen’s comments were made as part of a keynote speech, “Why the Welfare State was Transformed into a Competition State and How it Changed the Role of Education and Knowledge”, delivered at Universities in the Knowledge Economy’s (UNIKE) University Futures conference at Aarhus University’s Copenhagen campus on 15 June.
“Universities are losing monopoly over research; universities are gaining dominance in producing PhDs,” he said.
“That will be one of the very strong future trends.”
He added that the “progressive vision” of countries building a knowledge economy, which he said began in the early 1990s and was developed by centre-left world leaders including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, is no longer a priority for nations.
“I don’t think…that this vision is still a dominant wish,” he said. “The financial crisis since 2008 put very many visions to bed.”
He continued that the global financial crisis meant that countries focused more on survival, which he defined as “stick to what you’ve already established; try to save the political institutions; try to stick to a strategy of globalisation by having international trade agreements; and try to stick to small, piecemeal reforms of your national institutions”.
Speaking to Times Higher Education following his speech, Professor Pedersen added that as state funding for universities has dropped in the Nordic countries, privately funded research has increased, and private companies are “hiring more and more PhD students to do research”.
“This is a break away from...universities [mass] producing knowledge and students, and professionals for the welfare state,” he said.
“When I started working at a Danish university 40 years ago, I can’t remember one single example of privately funded research. It was only an issue from the mid-1990s going forward and it was fought against by every university department and every scholar because they thought it meant loss of neutrality and loss of productivity.”
He added: “Private organisations can now apply for funding in competition with universities. This is a challenge for universities.”