Shared fortunes

Employee ownership could help preserve the university as a site of research and teaching, suggests Steve Fuller

September 9, 2010

What sets the university apart from other organisations is its claim to integrate research and teaching within one administrative framework. The principled reason for integration is easy to state: it is the only way that knowledge becomes a public good - something of potential benefit to everyone, not just those involved in its original production. Knowledge would remain private, or at least restricted, were universities not in the business of making it generally available. This happens normally in the curriculum committee, the site for translating research into teaching.

Yet students apply to study disciplines, whereas research is funded along interdisciplinary lines. The activities surrounding research and teaching require different facilities, resources and skills, follow different work patterns, and are evaluated differently. Why, then, should the same organisation engage in both research and teaching? Clear and imaginative answers to this question are needed - and soon - for universities to justify their continued existence.

There are at least three aspects to this question: the segmentation of research and teaching; the alienation of the student constituency; and the lack of incentive to defend the university.

First, as universities respond to a more segmented market for teaching and research, it matters less whether the same person is adept at both. The main losers here are students, who see few exemplars of people able to make their ideas and findings accessible and relevant to wider society. What is to be done to preserve the university's "enlightenment" function?

Even if every academic cannot be both researcher and teacher, teachers should be granted study leave to keep courses up to date. But this is only a stopgap measure against a longer-term migration of academics into journalism and consultancy, fields that may soon challenge the legitimacy of academic research.

Second, the increasingly acrimonious debate over tuition fees threatens to alienate our natural ambassadors and best marketing tool. US institutions dominate the world's academic scene largely because of their lifelong commitment to students, the "alumni", who reciprocate with gifts to their "alma mater", typically for reasons relating to their experience as students.

The original universities were places where people were finished rather than fixed, more akin to churches than hospitals. This ideal can be revived via the so-called co-curriculum, prominent on US campuses, in which students pursue extracurricular activities that allow them to integrate their academic and non-academic interests. In particular, course credit could be offered for activities that are intellectually ahead of the formal curriculum. In digital media, for example, students could be accorded status as equal partners with academics as knowledge producers.

Last but not least, the gradual decline in regular academic appointments has achieved institutional flexibility at the cost of individual loyalty. Universities are great places to pursue one's own (funded) projects (for a while) but not to contribute to the collective projects associated with manufacturing knowledge as a public good. Consider academics' visceral hostility to university administrators, the institution's standard-bearers, which only invites the hiring of administrators who are all too willing to treat academic staff as expendable.

The way forward may need to be radical. Today most talk of "collegial" academic governance is nostalgic, if not downright reactionary. To walk the walk of collegiality, academics should take part of their salary in shares in the university's assets, in return for tenure and a say in institutional decision-making: in short, employee ownership.

The many interesting difficulties with this proposal are captured in a set of questions that we should start to discuss now: At what cost to universities would the state allow it? Could academics buy and sell their shares? Would they be able to convert their shares when they move posts? And, most importantly, would academics have the guts to take up the proposal in the first place?

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