The twentieth century history of universities is so often seen as a story of decline and loss. By the 1990s, the university was left in ‘ruins’, according to Bill Readings. But it was in many ways also a time of triumph for the universities. The university’s importance to society in the twentieth century grew with every change. Technological development, growth of the numbers studying at tertiary level, a realisation that knowledge fuelled economies and democracies: since the Second World War, universities became central to the public sphere.
Change was often experienced by academics as a kind of bereavement, each challenge a ‘crisis’. Even in very new universities, the idea of ‘the university’ seemed old. It not only drew on centuries of history, it attracted ritual, tradition and myth. The values of the university – even those values that were relatively new – seemed like they carried long tradition, and that they should be eternal and universal. Universities and academics regularly felt that their job was to protect those values, particularly as government interests expanded. Ever the optimist, Eric Ashby felt the universities were well equipped:
Alarmists in the British academic world fear government control and cry: 'Hands off the universities!' I do not share this alarm, for universities have always depended upon patrons to finance them, and over a stretch of seven centuries they have learnt how to dissuade their patrons - princes, bishops, tycoons, alumni - from meddling in their affairs.
But while the university’s knowledge became more valuable in the world beyond the cloister, the values of the university itself decreased in worth, declined in prestige and even lost much of its importance to the academic community. An ever-ascending economic legitimacy was the substitute.
The mechanisms that legitimised knowledge from the Second World War until the mid-1990s were challenged and trasformed. The guardianship of the community of expert scholars was supplanted by the dominance of the god-professor. The ‘philosopher-kings’ of a democractic meritocracy shifted to the de-centred logic of democratic dissent. Dismantling a patron-client like relationship with the state, universities became a supplier of goods, accepting money in exchange for knowledge.
Knowledge was not a constant, unchanging substance throughout these transformations. It had been imagined, at the start of the Second World War, as a unified – but growing – body of knowledge. It was external to the knower and could thus be protected by the university and its community of scholars. The unity of knowledge was already crumbling when the student revolution transformed it into an internal, inalienable substance: it was the possession of the knower in the same way as their heart, mind and sense of smell. But the tough economic discourse of the 1980s and 1990s altered the subjectivity of this personal knowledge. Newly commodified, knowledge necessarily was made alienable again. But it was not reunited as a singular, external substance. Now fragmented, each piece of knowledge was ready to be traded. For this reason, by the 1990s, universities’ guardianship role had slipped. No longer protectors of a body of knowledge, universities refigured themselves as owners of private property.
This thesis does describe a loss, then, but it is not because universities would have been better if they had stayed as they were before the Second World War. All evidence points to enormous benefits for knowledge as a result of looking beyond the university and responding to challenges faced in the community.
That traded knowledge is any less valuable admittedly sounds like nonsense. How could value be lost? Particularly when knowledge is a non-rival substance: transferring it anywhere would not take it away from its original owner. Moreover, it is not immediately obvious that the loss is of any great moment. At first glance it appears to be only the university, not society, that lost its wealth by losing control over knowledge – and that perhaps it deserved to.
It need not, however, have been a tussle at all. For the distinguishing characteristic of university knowledge was that it was public. It was not public property but it was placed in the public domain for scrutiny, examination, use and even transformation. As Mario Biagioli argues, knowledge can be private or public, but truth can only be public. Knowledge could be developed and used to serve interests, but the special reliability, the quality attributed to university knowledge was because it was public.
Democracy needed knowledge that was useful and trustworthy. The economy needed graduates who could be relied upon. Exchanging the wealth of the university’s knowledge for money undermined the structure that assured its quality. Afterwards, quality knowledge became both hard to identify and difficult to maintain.
At first, this was convenient for government as, now measurable as money, the public value of knowledge could be quantitatively compared to other demands on the treasury. But the system would cannibalise itself. Monetary value might reasonably act as an indicator for quality at first, but before long it must create a crisis of confidence in the quality of university knowledge. The evaluation of university success, now measured in its financial efficiency, would imply that universities would increasingly seek more money in exchange for less knowledge – or, more probably, lower quality knowledge. Remnants of university authority over knowledge might be asserted in constructing arguments for increased class sizes, for example. It was the consequence of an absurdity: if quality university knowledge was indicated by its monetary value, how much funding should have been allocated to produce it? How much money was needed to buy money?