Universities must promote links between subjects and with industry if they are to nourish modern society, argues Werner Hirsch.
THE modern world, for all its sophistication, still has difficulty knowing how to handle the industry of knowledge.
Never before has the future of civilisation depended so heavily on knowledge and never before have universities faced so much competition in delivering it - competition between institutions over students and financial support and collective competition with the private sector. Today's problems and solutions are, more than ever, complex and multi-dimensional.
In this context, how can the knowledge industry be successful when universities so often behave as if they were removed from the rest of the world, and rely so much on traditional disciplines?
Chang-Lin Tien, chancellor emeritus of the University of California, referred recently to universities "flailing about ... without knowing what they are doing or why".
This week sees the 11th general assembly of the CRE, the Association of European Universities, which brings together 521 universities and institutions of higher education from 39 countries to promote inter-university cooperation throughout the whole of Europe.
At the assembly, the Glion declaration, drawn up after heads of US and European research universities met earlier this year to discuss the challenges facing higher education as it enters the new millennium, will be distributed for the first time.
The declaration describes universities as "learning communities" and calls on academics to recognise their unique responsibilities towards their communities, regions and global society. It affirms that teaching is a moral vocation, involving development of the whole person, that scholarship is a public trust, supported by public funds and private patrons because it contributes to general human understanding, and that alliances within universities and between universities and the outside world are crucial for the well-being of society.
All too frequently, institutions concentrate on narrowly constrained subject matter and methodological tools of inquiry, predominantly organised into departments. But should departments really remain the dominating unit of universities, thereby possibly restricting the range and scope of critical inquiries?
Or would society be better served by building bridges across conventional disciplines and organisations, by interdisciplinary collaboration in teaching and research, fostered by reforms to curricula and organisation? If this happened, while strong disciplinary expertise would continue to be essential, it would no longer be the sole prerequisite for success.
Collaboration in the knowledge industry may proceed in three directions - within universities, between universities and between universities and the outside world, particularly private firms. Each option offers economies by spreading overheads. Each also offers the chance of academic enrichment and innovation, with not only a better educated society and more significant research but also faster rates of economic growth and higher levels of prosperity.
The lowering of institutional barriers among university departments is already occurring in some places, albeit slowly. In recent years, some conventional disciplines have merged within the university, for example, into molecular biology, comparative literature and atmospheric studies departments. Multi-disciplinary professional schools and research institutes have also been created. But efforts at combining academic disciplines have encountered strong resistance. Colleagues often look down on those engaged in multi-disciplinary efforts and this may affect hiring and promotion decisions. There have also been turf wars over teaching collaboration between universities.
Likewise, academics have voiced strong opposition to proposals for co-operation between universities and private firms. They argue there is a clash between the two cultures. Some also fear that collaborative arrangements, whether in the form of sponsored research, patent licensing or jointly owned start-up companies, threaten a university's academic integrity.
But more and more work in universities and private sector laboratories is beginning to involve collaboration. Examples in America include the Rand Corporation and the Livermore National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy.The United Kingdom recognised the merits of collaborative research when its Medical Research Council revamped its research grants policy in 1997. Funding now goes to multi-disciplinary teams large enough to create a critical mass.
At undergraduate level, the University of California at Los Angeles is experimenting with first-year cluster programmes, in which students enrol on a series of interdisciplinary courses for their freshman year. Students choose one "cluster" from about ten offered, each devoted to a broad theme such as "the global environment" or "the democratic experience".
At postgraduate and research level, universities have two options. They can reorganise the university from the top down - in extreme cases abolishing departments and replacing them with a structure based on intellectual themes.
In addition, rather than having separate administrators for postgraduate education and research, the two functions would be combined, with special offices created to reach out to other universities and industry.
The second option would be to foster large-scale collaboration, initially among top academics from different disciplines in emerging areas of knowledge. A board composed of the university's best academics and some outsiders would manage the initiative. Every year, this board would sponsor start-up work by selected projects involving three or more disciplines. In addition, the board would select a number of the previous year's start-up projects for further funding over several years. It would also monitor the projects, which, if successful, should easily find outside funding.
This should be on a scale large enough and of a high enough quality to raise interdisciplinary collaboration in research and graduate education to new heights.
As for alliances between universities and between universities and non-academic enterprises, the challenge is for universities to make the most of the opportunities for collaboration offered by, for example the European Union, such as the inter-university co-operation projects run by the Erasmus programme and the Tempus joint European projects, which foster co-operation between EU and Eastern European universities. Other programmes focus on specific areas, such as engineering (Caesar) or agriculture (Natura).
Finally, creative efforts are needed to forge alliances between universities and government agencies or private firms, which seek to apply university research. Here too, complex problems can best be solved through interdisciplinary efforts. Matrix organisations can be set up, linking disciplines and participating organisations in a variety of different combinations depending on the research subject. For example, the University of Utrecht has created one matrix organisation for strategic alliances with international pharmaceutical companies and another for alliances with firms in the electronics and medical equipment industries and a government ministry.
As society makes increasingly complex demands on the knowledge industry, new models are needed. These must allow the kaleidoscopic tableau of institutions which create and disseminate knowledge to adapt to new intellectual challenges. Old institutional barriers must be torn down and new alliances built. The guiding principle of the knowledge industry must be to reach out to all those capable of joining together in the creation of knowledge.
Werner Z. Hirsch is professor of economics, University of California at Los Angeles.