Nov 25 2015

Speech by Professor Craig Calhoun: Knowledge as a Public Good – the role of universities

LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun gave a public speech this year (2 April 2015) entitled ‘Knowledge as a Public Good: the role of universities’. The lecture, given to an audience at Hitotsubashi University, Japan, touched on the challenges facing universities today and highlighted the importance of both using knowledge for the public good and being public for the good of knowledge. 

“We are in the midst of an era of considerable upheaval in higher education and research, involving challenges to established ways of working that hold both threats and opportunities” Professor Calhoun said. “What is clear is that universities are unlikely to thrive simply by maintaining business as usual… Our task is to be creative in adapting to new circumstances. But in adapting, we should not lose our commitment to making knowledge a public good.”

Following publication of the UK government’s Higher Education Green Paper this month, and in light of wider discussions on the future of higher education, we share his speech in full here:


Craig Calhoun
London School of Economics and Political Science

“It is a great pleasure to visit Hitotsubashi University and an honour to be invited to speak on this wonderful occasion.

Hitotsubashi and the LSE share a great deal. LSE unfortunately lacks the beautiful cherry blossoms that mark spring in Tokyo. But it too is part of one of the world’s great cities. It too specializes in social science in order to prepare graduates for careers of leadership in business and industry, public affairs, and serving society. And it too is shaped by the fundamental belief that better knowledge is the basis for both individual leadership and addressing society’s most basic challenges.

Our universities offer students exceptional opportunities based on the education they receive. But we ask something of them as well. We ask that they use their knowledge not only selfishly but also to advance society. This was part of the founding mission for both Hitotsubashi and LSE. Our great universities have sought to advance knowledge because of its public importance and to share knowledge in pursuit of the public good. It is about this that I wish to speak.

We are in the midst of an era of considerable upheaval in higher education and research. This involves challenges to established ways of working that hold both threats and opportunities. What is clear is that universities are unlikely to thrive simply by maintaining business as usual. Of course, this is not the first period of institutional transformation. Both Hitotsubashi and the LSE were created in a late 19th century time of enormous change and played key roles in making this a time of public progress. To do this they had to innovate. Our task is to be as creative now in adapting to new circumstances. But in adapting, I will suggest, we should not lose our commitment to making knowledge a public good. Let me express this in three questions:

  1. Will universities continue to pursue knowledge for the public good – or will they pursue knowledge only for those who can pay?
  2. Will knowledge itself continue to be organised as a public good – one that can be shared widely without being diminished – or will property rights restrict sharing?
  3. Will public engagement continue to be basic to how knowledge advances – through publication, debate, error correction and the stimulation of new work – or will intellectual debate be stifled?

What sort of future we will have depends on how we respond to changes in how universities are funded, trends in information technology and media, globalisation, competition, and other changes. We need to renew ourselves even while we maintain the excellence to which we have long been committed.

Knowledge for the public good

The pursuit of knowledge has many motives. The sheer satisfaction of achieving better understanding ranks high. But for the modern university, the idea of making knowledge useful for the public good has always been strong.

Knowledge developed to cure diseases, strengthen financial markets, solve political problems, or deepen our understanding of culture and history can be of wide public benefit. Like natural and physical science, social science produces knowledge that is not just valuable but necessary. The basic institutions of modern societies literally can’t work without it. Banks and businesses of all kinds use social science knowledge on a daily basis (though often without realising it, or labelling it as such). Government ministries rely on social science knowledge whether they deal with trade and industry or diplomacy and foreign relations or the provision of health care and social security.

By far the biggest public contribution universities make is through the education of their students. Whether graduates become ‘captains of industry’ as the Hitotsubashi motto suggests or go into a range of different professions, knowledge will be basic to their success. Knowledge is of course much more than an accumulation of facts. This means the ability to think and analyse, to gather new information appropriate to a specific problem, to determine how reliable the sources are, and to communicate effectively. New information technologies make accessing data easier, but place a premium on all the other skills. This is why business leaders often stress the importance of educational breadth and the ability to see a problem from different perspectives. And it is why today’s graduates must continue to learn throughout their careers. First jobs create opportunities but less and less often offer guarantees. Career success depends on creative adaptation to changing conditions. So, it has become more important for universities to offer postgraduate education and executive education and more important than ever that basic courses develop students abilities to think critically and express their thoughts effectively. This requires real interaction with teachers.

Yet, at many institutions the race to achieve recognition for research has led to teaching being under-rewarded. At the same time, the organisation of research often privileges the achievement of disciplinary standing over contributions to the public good. Top universities today often seek to balance work inside disciplines with interdisciplinary research centres. After all, major public issues are seldom organised by academic disciplines. Climate change demands attention from economists as well as atmospheric scientists. Global financial vulnerability is a matter of politics and governance as well as technical finance. Urbanisation demands attention from a range of different social scientists as well as from architects and designers. Care for the aged is a matter of social institutions and design as well as medicine. And as these examples suggest, it is a mistake to conceive of the contributions of research entirely on the model of new technologies – though that has loomed large in the attention of funders.

Where research makes contributions to public understanding – to knowing the causes of things as the LSE motto has it – communication is vital. It is important for academics to communicate not only with other specialists but also with broader publics. New media help in this alongside more old-fashioned efforts to write well. But there is no substitute for building relationships. The contributions of academic knowledge are most valuable to policy makers, business leaders, and even social movements when they are developed in relationships, each side learning from the other.

Knowledge as a public good

The idea of knowledge as a public good refers to how knowledge is produced and shared. The point here is that for the most part knowledge is not lost if it is given away – like gold – or destroyed as it is used – like fuel that is burnt to provide heat or energy. Rather, in the famous phrase of the economist Paul Samuelson, the consumption of public goods is ‘non-rivalrous’. Clean air is an example. Investments in ending pollution necessarily benefit broad publics; it is hard to provide clean air on a purely private basis, one individual owner at a time (though of course rich people may live in less polluted parts of a city). Knowledge can be shared in this way, with no one worse off for sharing. But this is a choice. Knowledge can also be hoarded and restricted.

Pioneers of the Internet and open-source software used the slogan ‘information wants to be free’. This expressed an attractive ideal, but what we now see in reality is struggle over this freedom. More and more information is controlled as private property. Crucial data for research is restricted. This may pose a severe limit to the promises of searching and analysing big data as a new research methodology. At the same time, universities themselves and academic organisations often join in the proprietorial control of knowledge, seeking copyrights and patents – partly out of financial need.

The fact that knowledge can be produced and shared as a public good can be an advantage to making it effective in pursuing the public good. Better knowledge of markets or democracy can be more effective in securing public benefits when widely distributed. But, someone has to pay. Where benefits are distributed very widely, the question of who should pay takes on the form of a collective action problem. A large, dispersed public is unlikely to organise itself to pay – partly because each member cannot be sure others will pay and partly because each can hope to benefit without personally paying. Government has often been a solution to such collective action problems, requiring citizens and firms to pay taxes and using these to pay for public goods. And government has been a primary funder of knowledge-expanding research and knowledge-sharing higher education.

But government provision is in decline throughout the richer countries of the world. It is still growing in developing countries like China where participation rates are low and higher education is seen as important to the country’s modernisation. But government support for higher education and research must compete with spending on other levels of education, on health care, on care for aging populations, on infrastructure and other public purposes. Maintaining strong government support for both higher education and research depends in considerable part on demonstrating that it provides for the public good, and not merely private benefits.

Of course, knowledge can also be produced and shared on the basis of private payments. Students can be asked to pay larger share of the cost of their own education. Philanthropists can make gifts to defray the costs of education or research. Firms that benefit from knowledge can be asked to fund its creation.

Not surprisingly, the form of payment has an influence on the form of production and sharing. This is most obvious in cases where research is funded by business investments. This can be very valuable, but businesses are understandably likely to want the results of such research to be made available to them as private property. Universities try to negotiate terms that ensure the results of research benefit the public not only private funders. And we need to be wary of market failures: for example, purchase of research-based knowledge by businesses is likely to fund short-term not long-term projects, specific products not the underlying research programmes on which they are based, and to fund only the research private funders need or can use for competitive advantage – thus leaving unfunded work that could be of great public benefit.

Increasingly, students pay individually for their educations. Prices follow demand in a highly stratified market. Paradoxically, in recent decades the main factor determining what a university can charge has not been the quality of its teaching but the prestige of its research (though this may be changing with better sharing of information about teaching). This has made the higher education system look like the market for any high-end luxury good. In the markets for whiskey, sake, or wine there seem always to be older, more distinctive and more expensive brands. Among universities, there seem always to be institutions more selective, more famous, offering credentials that employers want even more. The rankings organise what economists have called ‘positional goods’ – goods whose value is based largely just on being higher in the ranking not on differences in use or taste or performance. Even the most selective universities compete for students because they want the best – those who will raise the standards of campus life and become the most distinguished alumni.

We see the results in the popularity of rankings. Many of these are based on dubious methodologies and too much emphasis falls on small differences – though of course all university presidents are quick to claim good rankings when they appear – as I am proud that LSE beat Oxford and Cambridge in the UK Research Excellence Framework and moved up to places to 22nd in the Times Higher Education Global Reputation Ranking. But rankings are also one sign of intensified and more global competition in higher education: competition for faculty, students, and funds.

Philanthropy has become an important supplement to what governments will pay and what universities must charge students. Philanthropists often give universities scholarship funds so that some students can study without being charged fees. This is very important for students in need. It is also important for universities, since they want to enrol the best students, not only the best with well-off parents. And it is important for the public because it makes education a source of opportunity and prepares the most talented students to make public contributions. Philanthropists also fund research and new kinds of academic work. Much funding for addressing major social issues comes from philanthropy. The growth of the whole field of behavioural economics was based importantly on philanthropic funding. Philanthropic gifts also play a role in determining which universities are at the top of the ranking hierarchies.

Philanthropy is, of course, also a reflection of growing economic inequality in society at large because without the accumulation of wealth there could not be big gifts. It is an effort to use private resources and private action for the public good. In countries where there are tax reductions to encourage philanthropic giving this is the key criterion: that the gift must be for the benefit of a wider public (not, for example, just for the giver’s own family). Moreover, philanthropists often create public goods in the second sense I mentioned – for example by subsidizing the creation of art and its display in museums that are open access. The beauty of the individual artwork is not diminished when it is seen by many. Neither is a new surgical technique less effective when used on the thousandth patient than it was on the first. Nor is a great work of history diminished by being read many times. Quite the contrary.

Seeking both to make knowledge a public good and to provide public benefit from knowledge raises the question: what is the public that benefits? Is it local, or national or global? Universities can be important at each level. It is a loss if no universities orient their programmes to their local communities. But increasingly the prestige and leadership are with global universities. National governments invest in global links; businesses seek graduates able to work globally. Global universities play a key role in preparing students for careers and leadership in a much more interdependent world.

Being public is good for knowledge

Knowledge flourishes in public because it is advanced through argument and debate, open publication and the replication of research results. These are public processes on which science itself depends. This is why, as the great sociologist Robert K. Merton stressed, the norms of science emphasise openness and sharing. Science places a particular emphasis on public communication. But this is important to other forms of knowledge as well. In a democracy, for example, open records of public meetings – of the legislature especially – are vital for citizens’ exercise of their rights. New technologies make many more such records readily available – and thus aid in research as well as citizenship. But the crucial point here is the idea that without free exchange errors are less likely to be corrected and knowledge less likely to advance.

The traditional way of ensuring critical debate has been to make scientific work openly available through print publication in tandem with libraries for wider access. New technology today could advance open access much further. This is blocked or slowed when academic journals are run on a for-profit basis. It is also inhibited by the prestige competition inside universities since this privileges publication in certain journals (often those with long histories and profit-seeking owners).

Even limited access to new knowledge is harder to arrange when scientific work is organised less for the advancement of knowledge than for the creation of market advantages. Research that goes into a new consumer product or an algorithm to manage trading is typically secret. Manifestly, such research has nonetheless produced advances in knowledge. This may tempt some to think that critical public debate doesn’t matter. And indeed, it may matter more in some fields than others. But it may also be the case that some for-profit firms find ways to encourage learning and public engagement internally even when they keep their projects out of the eye of wider publics; this has been an important claim of technology firms like Google and Apple. Indeed, research suggests that universities may be less free and dedicated to intellectual collaboration and constructive criticism than their ideals would suggest. Studies of biotechnology find that researchers in for-profit, corporate laboratories collaborate more because they are motivated by the desire to produce for collective ends and less constrained by the pursuit of status as first author or the like.

More generally, academic disciplines and research communities can develop strong norms as to what counts as legitimate research or ideas worth contemplating. In effect, they narrow the search for new knowledge based on a priori commitments to certain methods of research, privileging of certain questions and disqualification of others.

Universities are still the heart of public intellectual debate over both specific scientific questions and broader matters of policy and what works. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t take for granted that universities will always be able to play this role. The ways in which we adapt to new pressures will shape the answer. Will we provide the time and the incentive for effective public debate? This is one of the major contributions universities can make, serving as relatively disinterested agents of quality control in the production and circulation of knowledge. This is more perhaps more valuable than ever as so much dubious information circulates along with the good on the Internet. But it won’t happen if academic work is narrowed too much and academics are not encouraged to devote time and energy to public intellectual engagement.

Ironically, to constitute an effective intellectual public, academic institutions may need some level of insulation from wider influences. It is important that communities of competent researchers be the judges of quality. Science will not be advanced if intellectual judgements are reduced to markets or the wider field of public opinion.

In sum: At their best, universities like Hitotsubashi and LSE have been the most important of all modern institutions for securing the combination of ever-better knowledge, improved through research, with effective human capacity to use that knowledge, acquired through education. We have achieved this by mobilising knowledge for the public good, sharing it as a public good, and advancing it through public engagement.

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