Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 5. 1969.
The Universities — The Technological Service Station and its alternatives
The Technological Service Station and its alternatives
Peter J. Blizard, of Victoria's Department of Psychology, comments on the absence of response by the universities to statements by the Minister of Finance, Mr. Muldoon.
It Is Quite possible that Mr. Muldoon's gloomy cost-benefit 'analyses of university expansion and development could be of considerable long-term benefit to the university, but this will depend almost entirely on the university's reaction to the Minister's statements.
In the last year a number of New Zealand universities have made some gestures in the direction of internal administrative reforms. In sharp contrast, there has rarely if ever been any attempts by the universities to define their role in relation to the total New Zealand community. It is at this point that Mr Muldoon unwittingly enters the picture, and, by his comments, provides the opportunity and also the impetus for the university to think about what its purpose is and what is stands for.
Is the university a service station selling know-how and skills? Is it an institution that ought to maintain an arrogant detachment from society as suggested by Professor Galbraith? Or perhaps the peculiar alchemy of values we should strive for has been best expressed by Whitehead who writes of the vitality that emerges when "the adventure of thought meets the adventure of action".
In order to raise some issues for discussion let me first consider Mr Muldoon's central arguments and the university's response to them. Some of the wider implications can then be discussed.
The Minister of Finance has raised no really new questions. In a contracted form he is asserting that:
• The time will shortly come when New Zealand can no longer afford its present rate of university expansion.
• When that time does come then any further expansion should be restricted to those areas (carefully unspecified) of study which are directly related to the needs of the NewZealand economy.
• That too many students "fail"; that this is expensive and is a luxury neither we nor the students can afford; that this failure ought (in some unspecified way) to be eliminated.
• Insofar as it is possible research and teaching ought also to be directly related to the (unspecified and probably unspecifiable) present and future needs of the New Zealand economy.
Mr Muldoon has expressed these views in his usual clear-cut "realistic" way. From his published remarks it is fair to conclude that he sees the role of the university as being that of a community service station for the production of useful persons and useful knowledge: he also conveys the impression of reserving unto himself a Ministerial perogative on what is or is not to be defined as 'useful'.
A similar understanding of the role of a university seems also to characterise the remarks of other senior Ministers. For example, the Minister of Science when speaking to some students last year observed that—
"The classical university training handicaps graduates for industrial work and in doing so it handicaps industry . . . Many science graduates emerge quite unprepared for the profit-seeking cost-conscious atmosphere, the limited objectives and the accelerated tempo of industrial research. The university is a privileged community, accepting and upholding academic freedom, but that freedom can be used effectively and enlarged upon only as long as the university decisions are made in the interests of the community at large."1
In short the universities' task is to turn out graduates who are immediately, directly and perceptibly "useful".
The response by universities to these various Ministerial comments—but more particularly to those of Mr Muldoon—has not been clear-cut: some would say the response has been both inarticulate and trifling. The Vice-Chancellors' Committee is sponsoring a Conference in May of this year; the same body has also made a neutral or at best a luke-warm comment on the disparity between New Zealand and Australian University Teachers, salaries—as has the Past President of the Association of University Teachers. Some individual staff members, generally those taking up overseas' positions (e.g., Professor Frank Henderson), have been more outspoken. Finally, a number of New Zealand universities have set up committees to examine examination procedures: it is likely that the stimulus for this was Mr Parkyn's second report rather than the goadings of Mr Muldoon. This has been virtually this sum total of most universities' response to date.
I would argue that the universities' reaction to Mr Muldoon's statements has been narrowly-based, has focussed on issues of marginal and transitional importance (e.g., failure rates . . . the costs of university expansion, etc.), and has avoided coming to grips with the central issue, which means taking issue with Mr Muldoon's concept of what a university is and ought to be. The Minister sees the university principally as a technological service station: the universities seem either unwilling to, or incapable of challenging this assumption; in not challenging this central assumption the universities arc allowing the Minister to win a major (publicly-fought) victory by default.
What are the bases on which the Minister of Finance operates? One cannot be sure, but I suspect that if challenged Mr Muldoon would see them as related to the financial cost to the community. Put bluntly: state financing of higher education requires in return a measure of state control, and confers on the university an obligation to provide a direct, measurable return to the community in terms of manpower and know-how. One writer (Sauvageot. 1968. p. 23) has (disapprovingly) envisioned the role of the university in contemporary society as—
'Playing a larger and larger part in society in general and in the economy in particular. The university has a monopoly of the intellectual training and the research that strictly conditions any economic development today. This means that the whole economic system must take more arid more account of the university, and must (at the same time) have more and a more direct influence over the university."2
If this docs accurately reflect the Minister's position, and all his published remarks would support such an interpretation, then it is quite vital that the universities officially enter the arena, debate, and suggest to the Minister that perhaps he might be wrong. Let me now try and state some possible points that the universities might try and make.
It is of primary importance that the universities seek to broaden the basis of the debate between them and society (as represented by Mr. Muldoon). There is no point in trying to deny the service station function of university training—it is there for all too see. But that is not, nor has it over been the universal, sole function. The universities must define their other objectives.
The primary task of the university is to advance and disseminate knowledge, and this is an obligation which is subordinate to no other role. By "knowledge" I am not referring (only) to research: "knowledge" encompasses the creation of new languages such as cybernation; of new apprehensions of truth; and above all in terms of the organisation and reorganisation of knowledge. It has often been asserted that scientific progress leads increasingly (and some would say inevitably) to the fragmentation and specialisation of knowledge This may be true, but awareness of this truth gives rise to countervailing forces whose task is the development of new unities and new syntheses.
The toughest intellectual challenge of all is that of welding together the combined understandings of the biological and physical sciences, of economics and political science, of history and philosophy. Is there any other organisation within (world) society that possesses the necessary residue of skills and has sufficient freedom of action to undertake such a task? The creation and organisation of knowledge lead inescapably into an intellectual and creative domain: this is an area from which the profit motive is absent, an area which is incapable of analysis in terms of profit and loss cost-accounting, or within the more sophisticated conceptual framework of cost-benefit: analysis.
I have also long been of the impression that the university also has a stake not merely in the creation of knowledge (either for utility or its own sake) but also in terms of a way in which it apprehends reality, both past and present. Ideally it should at least attempt to question, understand and ultimately know all those intangible aspects of life which set the tone of a civilisation and determine whether in the end it will be cruel or humane, whether the spiritual and cultural life of a civilisation will he like stainless steel or will show in all its diversity the rich fabric of human experience.
Thirdly, it seems to me that a university ought also to create (not reflect passively) ethical standards of judgement. As Poincare has noted: "(Science) tells what we can do, never what we should. Its absolute incompetence in the realm of values is a necessary consequence of the objective posture." This docs not of course mean that the university Ought to refrain from making judgments about societies and social conduct. In respect of human values the point I am trying to make has been clearly enunciated by a colleague in the following terms:
'When the university's support is solicited by established agencies of power, then it must decide if the services requested of it violate its defining purposes, and (it must) reject them if they do. And so, it (the university) is also obligated to protest when society has undertaken to violate, cither in regard to the university itself, or with respect to humanity at large, those values that the university is specifically charged to honour as a requirement of its public function."3
It may be thought that the values of the creation of knowledge, the preservation of free enquiry, and the development of a moral posture towards social conduct, are, for a university, too obvious to require re-statement. I do not think so. Mr Muldoon's comments should be analysed with respect to two questions. Firstly, is what is being asserted true and accurate4; and, secondly is what is being asserted relevant to the total social objectives and purposes of the university. Whether assertions are accurate can be determined by recourse to the appropriate evidence; whether assertions are relevant can only be determined when the universities have made an attempt to assess their own social objectives.
Within the present situation I detect the danger that the universities of New Zealand are becoming rudderless—merely moving in the direction spelled out for them by the Minister of Finance. Instead of initiating, guiding and ultimately shaping the dialogue, the universities seem to be little more than passive respondents to the initiatives taken by others. It is time that the universities started to articulate their own vision—and there is very little reason for supposing that this vision will correspond in its entirety to the vision that New Zealanders have for the universities.
Society has heard Mr Muldoon. They have not heard much from the universities to redress 'he balance. Perhaps it is time that the universities of New Zealand made their own position plain, both for the benefit of those inside the university community and for society at large.
1 1 Accepted in the Evening Post. 6 May. 1968.
2 2 Sauvageot, J. et. at.; The Student Revolt. Panther Books. 1968.
3 3 Wainwright, C: Truth, Politics and Education. An address given at Curious Cove, January, 1969.
4 • The President of the New Zealand Society of Economists has, in his Presidential Address, called into Question some of the facts and assumptions that Mr Muldoon used in calculating the costs of university failure. This provides but one example of the way in which the Minister's statements can be assessed for their truth and accuracy.