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Should Universities be Concerned with Teaching or with Learning?

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and Institute of Economics and Business Management, Lisboa

The diversity of institutions involved in scientific practice has widened much in our century. The creation of structures for promotion and co-ordination of disciplinary research (the science research councils), the establishment of large national laboratories for launching and supporting applied research as well as services and scientific activities in strategical areas, the rise of powerful commissions for the joint co-ordination and administration of sectors of activity with decisive intervention of science, such as nuclear energy, the emergence of disciplinary scientific associations and associations for the advancement of science or for the diffusion of the scientific culture (some with roots that go back to the past century), the creation of international organisations, the launching of large international scientific programs, the appearance of foundations and other non-profit institutions devoted to scientific research, all this spectrum of organisations and initiatives makes the practice of science an activity of enormous relevance in contemporary society.

It is necessary, above all, to reflect on the implications of this enlargement of scientific and technological activity. Having been winners in this western part of the globe of W.W.II the United States deployed their economic machine of resource predation and capital accumulation (the multinational corporations) on the new “allied” territories, using as a strategy of diversification new high technology intensity operations.

The cold war climate proved highly advantageous to this purpose. Working in an economic cohesive space, somewhat pacified due to the threat of the soviet empire, resorting to powerful mechanisms for generating applied scientific knowledge (the big federal contracts), the new emergent sectors of high technological intensity started to dictate the rhythm of change of our societies.

Two factors deserve to be stressed in this process: first of all, the fact that in these sectors people lacking adequate scientific training (a “research Ph.D.” or a doctoral degree in scientific research) are not able to engage or cooperate effectively in their specific activities; second, the fact that the acceleration of the rate of change was supported by the emergence of the so -called “cold war universities”, the best example among them being Stanford University. Stanford became famous for its voluminous contracts with the Department of Defence, performing and enormous activity on projects in partnership with industry, gathering around the university a constellation of military laboratories and developments in new technological fields that was remarkable in every aspect.

It is still too early to perceive if this model of university could or should be copied, establishing again a new metamorphosis of the university institution. But without doubt, at the outbreak of a new century, the university-enterprise interactions appear as essential mechanisms mainly in sectors of high technological intensity (expressing the utility of the university with respect to the economy).

It seems pertinent to ask if the universities, that have so well reinvented themselves in the past century as public instruction universities ( the teaching universities, combining scientific research and teaching) enabling the reinforcement of the nation-states, will be able to metamorphose again, supporting both the wish for mass education and the faith in the rules of the free market. Will universities be able to reform themselves again, making compatible so apparently incongruent objectives?

The future utility of universities

The universities are subjected to enormous pressures (both internal and external): the need to define, wish and develop the internationalisation of scientific research; the changes in the nature of government financial support; the increase in the amount of financial contributions from enterprises to the university; the systematic rising of institutional networks; and, the emergence of new places and new processes of production and circulation of knowledge. The conditions and constraints to the structure and functions of the new universities result from the balance of those pressures with the capacities of leadership of academic authorities.

Reinvented at the beginning of the XIX century, nurturing and internalising scientific research, the university proved to be an institution with an extraordinary value for industrial society. The political power of the nation-state gave them the top place in the national systems of public education that were created, reaffirming the monopoly of universities as far as the granting of academic degrees is concerned. A second reinvention may be as pertinent today, at the dawn of an information society supported by a knowledge-based economy.

Any new society needs institutions that legitimate it; in return, it will delegate to them a fraction of authority, endowing them with resources so that they may exert it effectively. Some academics will not understand this, as many of them certainly did not a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, when they demonstrated against scientific research as the emissary of evil designs.

History shows that the vision of those who are afraid of the future may block and seriously delay transformation processes; it is the coming generation who suffers with that.

The new university will have privileges, certainly. But the university will not belong to those wishing that nothing changes, to those afraid of creating new knowledge that base new values; it will not be owned by those who blindly accept that solutions in the past were generated with infinite wisdom and magnanimous sagacity.

The growth of the higher education sector in the early sixties, together with the strategic importance of the generation of new scientific knowledge of fundamental nature, were two decisive vectors of change. The emergence of different mechanisms for the production and circulation of knowledge have forced the universities to face seriously the question of the effectiveness of their activities in the future. Several alternatives are possible: the refoundation of the university may proceed according to the principles of a “factory of knowledge”, or submit to the rules of interdisciplinarity, evolving from a university to a “multiversity”. It may continue to be a real school or survive just by redefining itself as a “no walls” virtual school. These are, at the moment, open questions.

But the knowledge society may be a terrible one, a society where those without pertinent knowledge, or worse, those who are not visible, simply do not exist. A society where, besides big financial business of great added value, we find marginalised groups functioning as sources of unqualified employment, serving and supporting the families and the “stars” who appropriate the vectors of the new wealth generation,

That is why if we don’t succeed in producing ideas and products that are of interest to others, we won’t exist. No one will come in looking for us, no one will treat us as effective interlocutors; and we shall loose, sooner or later, our expression as a community and, eventually, we will loose our own language (which will persist, under these conditions, solely as an affirmation of a counter-culture).

But it will not have necessarily to be this way. There cannot be privileged paths where only the powerful and the developed ones trace, proudly, their steps. We have to abolish that perception.

Either we reinforce the scientific bases of our knowledge of society, of nature and of ourselves, and promote critical and participative thinking or, alternatively we shall witness the slow (at first) but inexorable destruction of science, then that of argumentative knowledge and, with them, the legitimacy of the order on which lies our democratic society. Let us not forget that oligarchies have always favoured the combination of political ignorance with technical efficiency. Therefore we need science, much more science, and very good science. And this means institutes of excellence, autonomous, critical and participative.

The university of the future, the new university that almost imperceptibly is emerging today, has a great role to play. It is through opening up the university to the world of education and training that its institutional survival will be found. It is by interpreting the echo of the collective soul of our society, and its genuine eagerness for learning, that the challenge will be met. The future will only be won if the university is able to transform itself into an attractive place where our society is urged to learn more about us and the universe.


Caraça, João; “Science et communnication”, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1999.
D’Irsay, Stephen; “Histoire des Universités”, Étidions Auguste Picard, Paris 1933.