The Role of University in society
UK universities receive around 25% of their income directly from the government budget. This results in a cost for the tax payers of around £ 7 billion, give or take. Compared to the scales on which countries like the UK are used to spending it is a ridiculously small amount. For instance, to use an archetypal example, the British Ministry of Defence spent around £ 38.3 billion in 2016, over 5 times what Universities received from the government.
Even with their relatively small government budget, and the large amount of money that students are forced to contribute through tuition fees, universities are constantly under scrutiny regarding their spending, operation and in general their existence. While being under constant attack is negative for these institutions, it also offers a good opportunity to analyze the position of universities in society, what their role is and whether they are worth what is spent on them. Funnily enough, it will also reveal why this particular institution is under constant attack from certain sectors of society.
If we ask for the objectives and role of universities, the first answer that comes to mind is that they are to serve as educational institutions. Universities train the graduates of the future. This includes four of the most important groups of professionals: teachers, doctors, nurses, and engineers. Also scientists, politicians, journalists, architects, economists, psychologists… and the list goes on. In the 21st century human activity has become so diversified and complicated that keeping things running requires a large number of highly qualified individuals. These are provided by universities.
The next role universities fulfill is that of research and innovation hubs. Many, if not most of the worlds advances and innovations originate either directly from universities or with their collaboration. They act as operational and logistical bases for the world’s researchers, offering funding, laboratories, studios, offices and libraries. A lot of the times R&D companies are also provided support by universities, staffed by their members or are founded as spin-off enterprises to stimulate a particularly interesting field of research. The continued progress of science and engineering, as well as of the social sciences is dependent on the existence of universities.
Education and research are the obvious answers to the question of what the role of a university is. These are not their only purposes though, as they have strong social motives to exist. Traditionally universities have served as safe-ground for knowledge and intellectual endeavor of almost any kind. At least in principle, universities should be interested in progress and improvement of the human condition, without bias for political views, gender, ethnic origin or economic status of the thinker of turn. Universities should be interested in approaching the truth, and not necessarily whose mouth or hand said truth comes from. This particular objective may or may not yield direct profit in the economic sense, but is driven by humanity’s natural instinct to inquire and learn about the universe and itself.
To be able to achieve the previous objective, and do so in such an unbiased way, then a university should also strive to be an example of democracy. Suggestions, ideas, opinions and innovations in the university context must be valued for their intellectual context and not the individual who formulates them. To ensure this happens there must be equality among peers within a reasonable and democratically elected hierarchy. Said hierarchy must simply be a management tool to ensure the greater good of the institution and its members, and ensure that democratic and intellectual values are upheld, as well as to aid in the completion of the universities objectives. This way, a university could serve as an example to society, a microcosm which exemplifies the functioning of a self-governed democracy.
Last but not least is what is possibly one of the most important roles that a university should play in society. In a capitalist society nothing is certain, but with a good degree, some work experience and some connections, going through university can be a ticket for many to improve their quality of life. Many highly- paid (or at least well- paid) jobs are only accessible with a university degree, meaning that those extra years of education could help a person from an impoverished background climb the economic social ladder. This is why open-access university is an essential tool. Modern society is fundamentally unfair, but access to university can level the playing field. Can, not will, and any chance is better than no chance.
Before we said that universities are under constant scrutiny and attack from the powers that be. This may seem odd. From the discussion above it would seem reasonable to think that universities would be supported and empowered. But the fact that they can serve to level the playing field between the poor and the privileged may worry some sectors of the establishment. In a society which is divided by class, the powerful and wealthy would want to stay that way, and avoid the ‘lower’ folk rising.
Therefore, universities play a most important role in society. They provide some of the most fundamental needs of the modern world, qualified professionals and new innovations. They should also allow intellectual endeavor to thrive, and serve as an example of how a democracy should be run. And of course, they should serve as opportunity providers, helping the disadvantaged improve their situation in an unfair world. Society must care for its universities, and provide them with all they need. In exchange, the academics who work and the students who learn there should understand the gift and the opportunities given, using them wisely. They should also be aware of the responsibility in their hands, and care for the university system so that it may improve and continue to serve society for generations to come.