Could there be a new model for the public university?
One of the occasional themes of this blog is this question: what is a ‘public university’, and assuming that it is a desirable institution, how can it be secured and preserved? As I have noted previously, much of the public commentary on this question assumes that a ‘public’ university has that status when it is funded largely by public money; though I have also pointed out that, in my view at least, that is an unsatisfactory approach. What a public university does is much more interesting than how it is funded.
Another approach by some commentators is to argue that a ‘public university’ is one that advances the idea of education as a ‘public good’, or sometimes the idea that education should be pursued ‘for its own sake’. I regard the latter suggestion as rather meaningless: if education should only be offered for ‘its own sake’ – in other words, if we can think of no other reason – then it shouldn’t be offered at all. There are thousands of reasons why people should be educated to the highest levels that their intellectual ability can support, and it is quite unnecessary for us to suggest something as vacuous as education ‘for its own sake’.
My fear has been for some time that the arguments advanced in support of public education have become almost banal, just as the actual issues around education have become increasingly complex. Higher education in particular is now recognised as a key requirement for an advanced economy, for a stable society, for high value research that addresses some of society’s most urgent problems, for a tolerant and cultured population, and so forth. These needs sit uncomfortably alongside an educational theory that suggests that educational institutions should steer clear of direct economic and social involvement.
There is an alternative view of the public university, which suggests that education needs to connect with the world and its problems and arrange its teaching and research to ‘focus on global and local outcomes’. The key advocate of this approach has been Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University. Michael Crow has been recognised as one of the most influential US university presidents, and under his strategy to develop ASU as a ‘new American university’ it has shot up the rankings and attracted a lot of attention. Arguing that the American academy is often surprisingly unable or unwilling to influence decision-makers and society more generally to adopt better ways of solving problems, he has suggested that the university’s teaching and research should be ‘use-inspired’.
While there has been a debate on this side of the Atlantic about public universities and universities as a public good, this has often stopped short of suggesting what any of this means in a practical sense (apart from issues of funding). Whether or not we think that Michael Crow’s ‘new American university’ provides a model that could be used here, it should at least inject an interesting dimension into the debate.