Universities are key in move to capitalist core

July 5, 2002

Andrzej Kozminski calls for a change in the state's role from owner of higher education to policy-maker

Under authoritarian regimes, universities played a key role in preparing for transformation. They were the only places where a degree of freedom of expression was allowed and contacts with the free world cultivated. University careers attracted the most independent-minded and brilliant young people. Intellectuals employed in universities and research institutes pioneered political opposition to the regime. Most of the first wave of post-communist politicians in central and eastern Europe had academic roots.

As a result, universities in transforming societies have been left with a persisting culture of political activism. But under conditions of democracy, this culture is dysfunctional. It distorts the choice of research topics, particularly in social sciences, driving attention away from mainstream research towards local problems and perspectives. Replacing the old culture of political activism with generally accepted standards of academic excellence is a precondition of development for universities in transforming societies.

Better compatibility between transforming societies and leading countries should lead to dialogue and an open debate, enabling mutual adjustments. Universities in transforming societies do have something to offer. Some have preserved traditional humanistic university values better than western universities. And the harsh economic and financial conditions in transforming societies have triggered unexpectedly rich reserves of intellectual entrepreneurship.

Graduates are endowed with intellectual and social capital enabling them to accelerate and to catalyse multiple transition processes in their work and social environment. The academic community produces and disseminates norms and values underlying, justifying and legitimising the transformation process. A culture of debate and rational argument enables wisdom to surface, to accumulate and to influence human actions.

While advanced economies have mostly phased out or modernised traditional, low value-added industries, these still play an important role in transitional economies. This almost guarantees low growth, unemployment and social problems. These countries on the periphery accept and adopt only ideas, fads and fashions born at the core of the global capitalist system. Higher education institutions in these countries reflect this. The idea of catching up or closing the gap means moving from periphery to core.

Higher education can initiate, promote and accelerate this movement if government policies set the direction. But universities are touched directly and indirectly by a crisis of public finance in transforming countries. Directly, government subsidies remain low. Private higher education is still constrained by bureaucracy and low disposable incomes, combined with the lack of government support for students and low availability of student credits. Any funding formula for university education in transforming societies should be based on innovative financial engineering combining different sources of financing: public, private or commercial.

What is most important is overcoming the false myth of "free" higher education treated as "social privilege". Such a philosophy leads to substandard education, rationing of access and inability of institutions to adjust to market requirements.

Two fundamental values are essential: full accessibility to higher education for all school-leavers and people seeking new skills required by the market, and value for money. This implies introduction of tuition fees in all universities and gradual privatisation of higher education. State subsidies to higher education institutions should be replaced by government assistance to students through vouchers.

The indirect influence on higher education of a crisis in public finance brings limitations to public debate. Hard financial constraints prevent even academics from formulating more radical ideas regarding educational policies. As a result, the old model of the state as owner and administrator of higher education institutions is petrified in spite of the fact that it becomes obsolete so rapidly.

The role of the state as educational policy-maker must be developed if university education is to perform its function in closing the gap between mainstream capitalist economies and transforming societies.

Andrzej K. Kozminski is rector of the Leon Kozminski Academy of Entrepreneurship and Management, Warsaw. This article is taken from his address to a Unesco-Cepes roundtable on higher education league-table methodologies.

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