If they don't fit then fix them

November 1, 1996

Recently one of us, on asking to see a thesis, was told: "We don't let out MSc reports if the work is sponsored without permission of the sponsors. (Name of company) are very tight. I did publish something at a conference in April but it had to go to their head office in Brussels for clearance."

This is not an isolated incident. Universities used to require copies of higher degree theses to be placed in the library as a demonstration of their commitment to the wide dissemination of new ideas. But for well over a decade, funding models and ministerial exhortation have made universities look increasingly to industry and commerce to fund research.

The Foresight programme is just one of a host of schemes by which public money is passed through the research councils to foster collaboration with industry. William Stewart (THES, October 18) has extolled its virtues, but hinted at some of the dangers. We would like to suggest what these might be.

Confidentiality agreements have become common, even in work for higher degrees, even in collaborative work funded by research councils. These have been used increasingly by government departments. Such agreements require the academic parties to the research to "keep secret all information and results relating to or arising from the project" and giving the company "the right to limit publication in areas where the information is commercially significant". If applied literally, some of these agreements would prevent a PhD student from answering questions at an intra-mural colloquium or discussing a problem with a fellow student.

One consequence is that scientific research has appeared, both in journals and theses, without sufficient detail for the work to be independently corroborated. In a study reported in 1987 Adriana Caudrey cited examples of funders' modifying the actual conclusions of the research. One researcher complained that his "recommendations were so diluted (by the sponsor) as to be unrecognisable", others talked of "an unofficial grapevine about who is reliable". "Unreliable" workers would not be likely to receive further funding.

There is an inherent tension in the collaborative relationship between industry and universities. The limits of the social responsibility of an industrial corporation are largely those stated 30 years ago by Milton Friedman: "To make as much money for their stockholders as possible." The values of industry are associated with unlimited growth, involving the production more goods, the exploitation of more raw materials and the penetration of more markets with minimal constraints on competition. In the West these values have become hegemonic and accepted as the "normal" way of doing things. Yet these capitalist values are in no sense immutable or inevitable.

The values of the university, in contrast, are associated with concepts such as open, unimpeded and objective pursuit of ideas through teaching and research conducted in an institution morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power. The results of scholarly enquiry are disseminated through society by full and wide oral and written publication.

These values too are not immutable: indeed they are presently the subject of a sustained and multifaceted assault. One of our exciting contemporary challenges is to develop these values best to serve society in the next century.

Universities have a duty to the society that sustains them and one way of discharging this duty is by collaboration with industry and commerce. However it is essential to grapple with any value conflict, and to ensure that the choices that have to be made are brought out, and not suppressed either by ambiguity of language or by external pressures. Although we recognise that difficult decisions have to be made over the proportion of collaborative work in a university, our main concern is over the framework in which it is done. It is important that the different aspirations, often neglected, should be respected in the arrangements made for working together. .

Just as it would be fatal for an industrial company to adopt the values of universities, so universities' accommodation to the values of the market destroy any real education. In the words of the Canadian philosopher John McMurtry: "the economic determination of education must entail ex hypothesi the systematic negation of educational goals and standards."

Would the negation of traditional educational goals and standards actually matter? Peter Morgan of the Institute of Directors has publicly relished the prospect of "breaking the academic mould". We contend that society would be seriously harmed by the intellectual subservience of the universities to commercial or political interest. This would render impossible any true education involving "developing the powers of mind and advancing understanding and learning" which society expects universities to provide. Universities have a vital role in a democracy in providing a "national resource of knowledge and expertise", independent of government and of industry. The last two quotations are from the terms of reference of the Dearing committee.

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, summed up the situation well when he said:"The university must not endanger its primary commitment to learning and discovery for these are the functions that ultimately justify its existence and produce the greatest benefits to the community."

David Packham is in the school of materials science, Mary Tasker is chair of human scale education, University of Bath.Also see:

http://www.bath.ac.uk/mssdep/paper7.htm .

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