Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Who pays? Who owns? Universities after WWII

There was a widening awareness that advanced knowledge was shaping the world in 1949, when Robert Menzies won the Prime Ministership of Australia. The reality that scientific discovery had contributed to the outcome of the war was high in the public consciousness. “Spectacular” and “ingenious” research projects were the crucial and highly visible contributions by the universities to the war. The war had raised new questions about society and social values and created new international relationships and anxieties. It had demonstrated an important role for universities in supporting the nation. University-derived knowledge fairly suddenly became very important for the functioning of society and the economy – and, with all the optimism of the end of a war, the future. Menzies said, in one of his autobiographies:
The Second World War brought about great social changes. In the eye of the future observer, the greatest may well prove to be in the field of higher education. Robert Gordon Menzies, The Measure of the Years (London: Coronet, 1970), p. 84.

This change is massive, changing inexorably the sense of what a university is and what university education is about - and whom it is for. It makes universities paradoxically both more and less elite than before the war, very significantly giving higher education a new role in – and concomitant responsibility to – society. When Menzies and the Commonwealth government identified this new role for universities in society, this led to a new injection of very significant federal funding to Australian universities, which had previously been purely the financial responsibility of the States. In exchange for this funding, the government could, naturally, expect in return that the universities function in and (crucially) for society. Speeches and discussion from the period intimate the emergence of a somewhat commercial exchange – funding by society, effectively purchasing a university system – including the selection of a particular type of university system – which could then be expected to function for society.

Naturally, Menzies would have deplored the crassness of considering universities in such commercial language and indeed he often spoke about the importance of academic freedom, free inquiry and liberal education.

This tension is summed up by Russell, a British academic/polictician as a clash of two valid principles:
The case for free academic enquiry must be unanswerable, for without it, what is the value in having academics at all? Yet at the same time, the principle that public money ought to be accounted for is at the heart of democratic principles. Taxes are voted by consent, and that consent must rest on some understanding about how they are to be used. Russell, Conrad. Academic Freedom. (London: Routledge, 1993). p. 10

I am thinking that this period is the start of a long, almost unnoticeable - but always vexed - period of tension regarding knowledge ownership. For as well as tensions about government versus university control (for government has not always been as benign a patron - in the true paterfamilias sense - as Menzies was) we also see in this period a great expansion of university participation to include many more class backgrounds than before directed towards many more purposes than before.

This then raises all the issues around - who is university education for? (Class issue re who gets to possess it). Who benefits (in terms of industries, businesses, individuals, society)? What is the responsibility of universities to the community? (In what senses does the community own knowledge?) What will happen to the old sense of knowledge? ('Falling standards' as participation widens, shift to instrumental over elitist knowledge, increased accountability and decreased control by academics). Who pays, who owns, who decides? And what happens to academic freedom (which is the ethical side of the who owns question).

These are the issues I am trying to sort out right now. Wish me luck!

(see also Andrew Spaull, Australian Education in the Second World War (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1982) and Keith A.H. Murray et al., "Report of the Committee on Australian Universities," (1957))

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