What, exactly, is the university for?
Universities once had clear ethical purposes but over the years we have lost
our moral direction. To fulfil their true purpose, universities need to get
back on course: we need to re-moralise.
To show you how much, I will take you back
to when I was a five-year old living with my family in New York City. Thousand
of people around the world died of polio that year; more than half were
This drama was repeated every summer. Everyone was relieved when autumn
brought an end to the polio season, but the cycle of fear would begin again the
Then something amazing happened. Jonas
Salk, a young, and previously obscure, university researcher, created a
vaccine. The initial results looked promising but a large-scale research
project was required to be certain that the vaccine was safe and
effective. A call went out for
children to participate in a nationwide double-blind trial and my parents did
not hesitate to enrol me. All together, two million primary school children,
known as “Polio Pioneers” rolled up their sleeves for what became known as “The
Shot Heard ‘Round the World”.
The trial proved a success; the vaccine was
safe and effective and Jonas Salk became justifiably famous. Although Salk
became famous he did not become rich. This is because he and the University of
Pittsburgh, the private university where he worked, licensed the vaccine to
anyone who wanted to manufacture it. The ethical premise driving Salk’s work
was simple: the purpose of university research was the discovery and
dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of society. Making money was never their goal.
Would parents be as eager to sign up their
children to this kind of experiment today? I am sad to say the answer is
probably no. Many of today’s
parents refuse to allow their children to have tried-and-true vaccines let
alone experimental ones. Today’s parents are deeply sceptical about science and
scientists. They particularly distrust the commercial motives of drug
companies, researchers and universities. They have a point.
Drug companies, for instance, have their
in-house staff produce research articles extolling their product’s benefits. Company
representatives then approach well-known medical researchers and ask them to
put their names on the articles as the author. The result is that articles,
actually written by company employees, wind up in prestigious medical journals
under the names of famous scientists.
Publications are the coin of the realm in
university scientific careers.
Some scientists agree to pose as authors just so they can add another
paper to their CVs.
Clearly, we live in another time and place
from Salk. The central ethical premise of universities has changed
fundamentally. The discovery and dissemination of knowledge has been replaced
by the desire to exploit it.
Can anyone today imagine a university
giving a valuable vaccine away? In fact, the government encourages universities
to do just the opposite — to patent our discoveries and capitalise on our
There is nothing illegal in universities
trying to exploit the commercial value of their intellectual property. However,
commercial transactions carry their own imperatives, and these may not be
compatible with traditional academic values. Scientists are not the only ones
whose ethics require scrutiny.
In the Global Financial Crisis, financiers
whose fast and loose behaviour caused financial distress and misery to families
around the world included some of the brightest graduates from the world’s
leading universities. The British parliamentary expenses scandal was
perpetrated by graduates of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious universities.
Instead of taking a stand, universities have kept quiet.
This is because they no longer have a moral
role. They have given it up for one that is strictly utilitarian. The Federal
Government says the purpose of universities is “to grow the knowledge-based
economy”. They are “key
contributor[s] to… economic progress”. Invest more in higher education, it
says, and the result will be more wealth for everyone.
As a Vice-Chancellor, I would really love
to believe this, but I am sorry to say that it is grossly exaggerated. There is
no automatic correlation between the amount of money spent on universities and
I am not suggesting that universities do
not contribute to the economy. Of course they do. So does Shakespeare. Tourists
to Stratford-upon-Avon spend millions of pounds per year on hotel rooms, meals,
not to mention coffee mugs with quotes from Hamlet. And then there are the jobs
created printing Shakespeare’s plays, selling copies of his sonnets and acting
in Shakespeare productions. There is only one problem. Shakespeare’s value has
nothing to do with any of these things.
Not everything of value can be expressed in
dollars and cents. Education is, or should be, a moral enterprise.
I know that many, indeed most, students go
to university because it will help them to get a better job. There is nothing
wrong with this; a fulfilling occupation is part of a good life. But even jobs
are not just about money; work also has moral value. As John Ruskin said: “The
highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes
From its earliest classical origins,
education has not just been about acquiring work skills — its real purpose was
to build “character” so graduates could take up their role in their society and
contribute to the good of everyone.
The original universities took it for granted that their main job was to
mould the character of their students, usually by inculcating religious
precepts.4The idea that the purpose of education was to forge character
persisted for almost 700 years.
As recently as the 19th century practically
all universities still understood that this was their mission. Unlike the first
American and British universities, which were either private or independent
charitable trusts, the first Australian universities were public institutions
established by acts of parliament and supported by annual appropriations from
the government. They were deliberately not religious.
Interestingly, Australian universities
never actually renounced their goal of developing character. Following
Socrates, they hoped that knowledge of the good would automatically lead to a
commitment to the good.
Beginning in the 1960s, however, even this
non-religious approach became suspect. The Vietnam war and civil rights
movements fomented campus unrest in the USA, which spread to Europe and
eventually to Australia.
The result was that not just students but
also their professors increasingly perceived truth seeking as futile.
Universities slowly sank into the morass of moral relativity.
This rendered them unable to make
judgements; they could not even decide which subjects students should study.
Today, students are allowed to choose from hundreds of options with no subjects
considered more important than others. The result is that our universities
teach students, but they do not even pretend to make them wise.
In his inaugural address as rector of St
Andrews University in 1867, John Stuart Mill said the object of universities
was “not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and
cultivated human beings”. Mill was right.
We at Macquarie University have decided to
see whether it is possible for a secular institution to teach more than job
skills but to actually educate the whole person. Although we can no longer go
back to teaching religion-based prescriptive ethics, we do want our students to
live up to John Stuart Mill’s vision of graduates of cultivated people.
We at Macquarie believe that a university
education ought to produce educated men and women who understand the world and
their place in it, who can write and speak coherently, who know what a poem is
and who can tell a symphony from a jingle. For this reason, our new
undergraduate curriculum does make judgements.
All of our students, no matter what course
they are enrolled in, are required to study People subjects (exposing them to
the arts and humanities) and Planet subjects (so that they can understand how
But being cultivated is not enough. We also
want to go back to education’s purpose and build character. How are we doing
this? This is where the third “P” for Participation comes in. All Macquarie
students, whatever course they pursue, will undertake a community or work project
outside the university, in many cases outside Australia.
Most important of all, their experience
will help them to develop a concern for others, and a concern for others is the
essential foundation of all ethics. Our new curriculum is expressly aimed not
just at the state of the art – but at the state of our students’ hearts.
This is an edited version of an address by
Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia, on June 6.