I have co-edited, with Ann Thomson and Stefan Nygard, a series of short articles in The Conversation on the history of the relationship between universities, states and markets. March 2015.
Universities around the world today face pressure to conform to economic rationality and contribute to national innovation. Though often presented as a revolution, driven by “globalisation” or other vague buzzwords, this is nothing new. Research and teaching have never been free from external constraints and public universities have long been expected to justify the resources society devotes to them.
But universities feel threatened and increasingly incapable of fulfilling their primary functions. The question at the centre of most current debates on university reform is to what extent universities themselves should determine the goals, values and norms of pedagogical and scientific practice. For politicians and the general public, academic freedom – even as a noble principle honoured mainly in the breach – is becoming meaningless.
Debates on the freedom of higher education are as old as the university. But today’s ideologically imposed constraints are very different from the financial dependence of public universities on the state after 1945. The current international trend towards semi-private, semi-public universities poses new challenges to academic freedom. This is exemplified by the dominance of market-based vocabulary and principles for scientific conduct.
And the adoption of corporate management models is leading to the authoritarian concentration of power within universities. Critical voices opposed to current reforms argue that intellectual autonomy is being sacrificed to an unworkable vision of financial autonomy for public universities.