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The intellectual role of universities?

By Gray Southon - posted Monday, 8 November 2004

Universities are neglecting their role as the intellectual engines and guardians of society. This is demonstrated by the very question we are presented with in the topic 'Where should universities be heading?' - addressing only education, and ignoring research and social analysis.

How often do we find solutions, or even an understanding of the great issues of society emanating from our universities? Yes, we have some renowned commentators, but how many?

Within universities, how often do you get vibrant, multi-disciplinary debate about how best to use the collective potential to the advantage of society? Indeed, we do have a few academics and groups who are clearly directing their efforts at real needs. But how many? If you made a list of the major issues that society faces, what portion of a university’s effort would be directed to solving them?


Our world is threatened by war, poverty, terrorism, environmental calamity, drugs, social conflict, despair, political corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. Where do we see answers?

For too long many academics have indulged in a sterile pre-occupation with interest-driven research, confined in narrow disciplinary frames with little rigorous analysis of society’s needs. They even avoided the need to put discipline into teaching.

As president of a postgraduate student’s association in the early 90s, I participated in the process of forcing staff to take teaching and supervisory responsibilities seriously. Prior to that, academics interested in raising teaching standards were rare. As an academic in a variety of universities I found the much-vaunted collegial debate as little more than a hollow shell.

Universities are seen by the public as largely out of touch with the real needs of society and little more than a necessity for professional job training. Such public apathy has left them open to political attack by all shades of government, which have reduced their financial independence and promoted competitiveness. While these measures have shaken universities out of their complacency, they have lost their integrity and become creatures of student whim and short-term corporate interests.

Many academic leaders are more pre-occupied with ensuring financial viability than advancing and integrating their disciplines. In the process they are alienating their colleagues by overloading them with teaching and cutting support services. The situation is exacerbated by the reporting demands of government in an illusory attempt at transparency. The result is decline in genuine independent thought and co-operative collegiality.

I have sought in vain for the solution of this problem. Three basic shifts have to be made.


First academics need to redirect their capabilities towards the real needs of society and to re-gain society’s confidence. This requires a massive change in university culture. I see neither the desire nor the resources for this either in the administrative structures or in their associations.

Second, the government needs to realise and appreciate the critical intellectual role of the university in society and provide the funds required to do this. Government needs to abandon the pretense that it can micro-manage university performance by manipulating funding based on sterile performance data.

Third, society needs to realise the crucial role of independent expertise in guiding the future development of society. This requires them to regain confidence in academics, which seems a long way off at this stage.

While there may be moves in these directions in some cases, they need to be quite widespread to arrest the decline. In the meantime, society staggers on in this increasingly confusing and dangerous technological world, driven by a complex of largely self-interested economic and social forces. Each force is guided by its own narrow agenda with little influence of any agency with independent competence to provide coherence and guidance. The hazards are compounding, and the fear and bewilderment within society is a major concern.

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About the Author

Gray Southon is a specialist in organisational analysis working mainly in the health industry, looking at knowledge and professional perspectives. He has been involved as a student, student activitist, lecturer and/or researcher in several UNSW universities, as well as in Canada and New Zealand.

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