Essay

Facing the zeitgeist

WITH ONE BOLD move King Henry VIII could solve many problems. He could meet his conscience. After divorcing his Catholic Queen, Catherine of Aragon, the newly Protestant Henry knew scholars such as Erasmus denounced monasteries as institutions no longer fitted for the modern world. Why segregate religious women and men in closed communities of contemplation when souls were needed to lead local parishes, educate children, provide alms to the poor? Across Reformation Europe the old monasteries, priories, convents and friaries had been dissolved as places of popular superstition, out of step with the times. Henry’s kingdom could do the same, replacing Catholic institutions with new Protestant values.

Dissolution delivered a political benefit, shifting power toward a centralised monarchy. Catholic religious orders were torn between two rulers – a king who recently declared himself head of the Church in England, and the Pope in Rome, keen to reassert spiritual leadership over all Christendom. With an end to monasteries, remaining religious would come under the control of bishops appointed by Henry. The King could remove religious practices he no longer found acceptable, along with powerful figures owing allegiance beyond the kingdom.

Finally, there was money, serious money. Over the previous centuries, monasteries had become wealthy. Bequests from the faithful, control of pilgrim routes and, above all, vast landholdings allowed religious houses to be self-sufficient, independent of political power. Monasteries, priories, convents and friaries across the realm controlled up to a quarter of arable land in England, taking for themselves revenues that might otherwise flow to the crown.

Still, the King was cautious. Monasteries might be mocked by scholars but for local communities they provided employment, trade and spiritual support – those monks, up before dawn to intone Matins, were praying for everyone. So first the King organised ‘visitations’, a sort of research assessment exercise to test whether religious houses were keeping their vows. Publishing the results highlighted moral lapses no longer acceptable to Protestant thought. On receipt of visitation reports, the smallest institutions were dissolved first. This provoked the revolt of Robert Aske, who stressed the role of the monasteries in providing welfare to their communities. It was not a welcome message, and the King required troops, and executed several prominent clerics in order to continue his program. Between 1536 and 1540 Henry VIII and chief minister Thomas Cromwell dissolved all religious orders, leaving England, Wales and Ireland dotted with picturesque ruins to await a future generation of Romantic poets.

By the time the last monastery was closed, its roof dismantled so rain and wind would make the buildings uninhabitable, the King had expunged from his realm a set of wealthy independent institutions for generations committed to standing aloft from the world. He had acquired much treasure, selling land that once fed monks and nuns. This gave the Crown a windfall: some Henry spent on new university colleges; some on new cathedrals; but most he squandered fighting the French.


NO ANALOGY IS exact, but the Tudor dissolution of the monasteries gives pause when the modern nation-state considers the future of contemporary universities. As institutions committed to knowledge, universities claim distance from shifting utilitarian pursuits in favour of more lofty goals. Decades of benefaction and shrewd investment have created capital-intensive educational organisations with significant cash flow and landholdings; in Melbourne, RMIT owns more than 6 per cent of the central business district, while the University of Western Australia’s land holdings around Perth are legion. Like the Tudor monasteries, today’s universities pledge allegiance to more than local concerns. They speak to a global scholarly audience with values that frustrate government – all those papers in obscure academic journals, all that intellectual property locked up in institutions that could seemingly attend to quick economic returns for the taxpayer.

Political frustration with universities breaks through often: complaints about arrogant institutions that resist government priorities; that value research over teaching; that fail to respond to community ambitions. There are demands universities deliver a dividend on public investment. The dissolution of Australia’s universities may not be imminent, but the warnings abide in the failure of an earlier class of contemplative institution.


THE MONASTERIES OF Tudor England were founded over several centuries, each reflecting a different moment of British history and the priorities of new religious orders, keen to express their vision in stone or marble. Yet by 1530 most appeared part of the same broad monastic tradition, and all could be tarred with Royal propaganda as lax about their vows, living too comfortably, peddling dubious ideas, living by out-dated rituals.

Likewise, Australian universities were founded in waves from the middle of the nineteenth century. Each expresses a slightly different formulation of mission, influenced by local circumstances and timing, but all remain recognisably the same type of organisation. Architecture may vary, but all Australian universities are arranged as autonomous, professional, comprehensive, secular, public and commuter places of education and research.

Originally enrolments were few – in 1852 just twenty-four students signed up for classes at the new University of Sydney. Curriculum was largely cribbed from older British institutions, but it turned out Australian students were less interested in arts degrees, craving instead access to the professions. Soon universities in the various colonial capitals were following state institutions in the United States by adding medicine and law, engineering and science, prevailing skills in short supply. These new universities embraced self-governance and independence, as places apart from society. Their costumes, rituals and Latin tags emphasised adherence to traditions that transcended geography and local political control.

A century of slow expansion followed, though universities still touched few lives. Fewer than three thousand students were enrolled across Australia at Federation. Only in the aftermath of the Second World War did a further wave of foundations begin – a national university in Canberra, second universities in Sydney and Melbourne, and a steady rise in enrolments as tertiary qualifications became the basis of professional employment. 

Foundations surged again in the 1960s and early 1970s, with fresh universities embracing a multidisciplinary focus to distinguish the new from existing providers. Even so, demand outstripped supply, driven above all by the rising number of women completing Year 12 and looking for tertiary opportunities. 

To meet the shortfall of places on campus, the nation experimented with dedicated teaching colleges before Commonwealth Education Minister John Dawkins decided in 1987 to transform the sector. Henry VIII first combined small monasteries – and minister Dawkins followed suit, setting policy parameters to force amalgamations among specialist institutions, impose uniform funding rates, stipulate research as a condition of university status and make students fund much of their education. 

In this moment of rapid policy change, John Dawkins gave the nation large public universities marked by similarity of mission and structure. His vision has endured for a quarter of a century, tweaked but not fundamentally altered by the dozen or so ministers who followed in the higher-education portfolio. Yet this vision of a unified national system bundles together many contradictions in a single policy. These tensions in policy logic mark the points of stress – and perhaps ultimate unwinding – of the present system.

The institutions that emerged from the Dawkins era were changed in important ways. They faced declining government support – per student funding peaked in 1976 – and searched for an alternative source of funds. From the first fee-paying international students in the mid-1980s, Australia’s public universities now attract more than a hundred thousand new international enrolments each year. The result is the largest service export industry in the nation, generating more than $15 billion in annual revenues. Against Australia’s low rate of public investment in tertiary education, international student flow has afforded institutions a continued degree of autonomy from the state.


THE ARRIVAL OF more students on campus demanded a change to university operations. Management teams expanded and embraced strategic planning and more standardised processes. Universities introduced measures for teaching performance based on student feedback, rewards for research excellence and contracts where once tenure prevailed. Many described this as ‘corporatist thinking’ pervading once collegial institutions. Such changes might equally be seen as the inevitable concomitant of rapid growth and reliance on uncertain income, a necessary administrative professionalisation to deal with complexities of scale and markets.

Growth remained the leitmotif. Many campuses now resemble small cities hosting more than fifty thousand staff and students on any teaching day. Such concentrations of people strain transport systems and stress housing markets. University precincts attract secondary businesses hoping to profit from international trade. They frustrate local councils – like monasteries, public universities pay few local rates yet may be the largest economic hub in a community.

Meanwhile, state and federal governments have observed closely the success of a few universities – Cambridge and Stanford as the exemplary cases – in fostering vibrant innovation precincts. Here technologies are born, talent attracts, venture capital congregates and new industries emerge. Why do not Australian universities produce the same? Hence political demands for applied research and immediate impact. Regional development strategies are framed around universities to keep young people at home and attract international revenue. Any rationalisation of programs – closing an unviable degree or shutting an undersubscribed campus – becomes a contentious political issue. Universities need scale but local communities want presence; the two are not easily balanced.

Here is the core of tension of ‘town and gown’. Australia’s public universities have created a globally significant industry. Councils, communities and governments want to share in that success. They have views about what universities should be doing. Yet the founding principles of university life prove inconvenient. As Cambridge professor of intellectual history Stefan Collini argued in the London Review of Books earlier this year, modern universities are still driven by much older assumptions:

… the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual heritage are self-evident public goods…

Given these conventions, universities do not easily accommodate external expectations – and so frustrate governments. The trend in recent decades is to eliminate public institutions not controlled directly by ministers. Universities have retained an older legislative form that assures their independence. The price is regular political criticism of tertiary institutions as ‘out of touch’. University goals are not aligned with government aspirations for swift translation of research into economic gain. Academics look beyond national boundaries for esteem – to peers abroad, in a profession marked by constant movement of global talent toward centres of academic strength. Scholars focus on research that speaks to international research questions rather than local financial gain. 

Politicians decry this as the ‘publish or perish culture’, proof that universities have followed the monasteries and lost sight of real life. Yet as American literary scholar Stanley Fish observes in his recent book of essays Think Again (Princeton University Press, 2015), faculty members are right to occupy themselves ‘writing academic journal articles that few people read’:

That, of course, is an accurate description. Senior faculty members do in fact write articles that only their peers at the top of very rarefied disciplines can read. That is what academic research is all about: highly qualified scholars working on problems that may have no practical payoff except the unquantifiable payoff of advancing our understanding of something in philosophy or nature that has long been a mystery. 

Such an explanation of scholarly priorities is cold comfort for government. Academics, they discover, have other horizons, reinforced by the rise of institutional rankings. These measures of esteem rely heavily on research citations – academics drawing on the research of other academics. Since domestic and international students are influenced by these rankings, there is much incentive for universities to worry about what is counted – research performance rather than local political aspirations. Whatever the desire of government to direct universities toward other priorities, it proves hard to influence institutional choices.

Hence the resemblance to Tudor times. Like the monasteries, universities are not just national institutions. They hold a surprising fraction of the national wealth alongside significant financial autonomy. Universities work in an institutional form difficult to shape from outside, and to incentive that puzzles policy-makers. For government, the risk is opportunity lost and potential electoral damage as universities adjust operations without regard to local political consequences. For universities, even more is at stake: a new ‘spirit of the age’, impatient with contemplative institutions, might see the state pursue control through dissolving the familiar and creating something better-aligned to the Sovereign’s interests.


DID MONASTERIES IN Tudor times sense impending danger? They could hardly have missed the criticism, the widespread jokes about monks who betrayed their religious obligations, the closures across Europe. Yet when successive English monarchs proposed reform of religious communities, these were resisted. For those inside the cloister, the value of monastic life was self-evident. The early revolt suggests many in the community shared that assessment. The state, however, proved more powerful and more determined. The King’s advisors proceeded with skill, never banning monastic life outright but forcing the monks to sign statements closing their cloisters. They made dissolution an apparent voluntary act, an affirmation of the Reformation zeitgeist. It would be three hundred years before monastic communities were re-established within the Church of England.

The Tudor criticism of monastic life – cut off from the world, not contributing sufficiently to society, focused on a closed, interior existence – has resonance in contemporary commentary on universities. Alongside political criticisms are claims from entrepreneurs that new technologies will ‘unbundle’ institutions, assigning the traditional public university to a different form of closure.

Yet as institutions of contemplation and critique, universities have been thinking much about mission and purpose. The role of the university in the world has become a quiet preoccupation for those within the walls. As tertiary institutions become large economic players, important for surrounding communities, what obligations and opportunities – and what moral imperatives – lie before the public university?

For all universities, teaching and learning are central. But emerging over recent decades has been a sustained discussion of a ‘third mission’, labelled variously as knowledge transfer, community relations, industry partnership or, simply, engagement. While not yet a completely coherent or settled attribute, with the precise language and metrics associated with teaching and research, engagement has found an institutional home in many universities.

Engagement builds on a long tradition of civic contributions – galleries, theatres and lectures offered to a broader public, annual open days, public festivals and sports events. There have been longstanding commitments to neighbourhoods. The University of Chicago has worked hard to address disadvantage in its neighbourhood. Similarly, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia developed community partnerships under the ‘Penn Compact’ as a public commitment to inclusion, innovation and impact. Penn has formed ties with local elementary schools, encouraging Penn students to spend time assisting school classes. The university has built a new public common next to the football stadium, and encouraged urban farms on institutional landholdings. 

In the United Kingdom, the debate around an engagement mission for universities was encouraged by a number of public reports and, from the beginning of this century, a national commitment to ‘third-stream funding’, a new phrase in the tertiary education lexicon. This program sees substantial public funds distributed each year to encourage collaboration with the private sector, government bodies, charities and community groups. Projects should speak to research and teaching activities so engagement enriches every part of the institution. A Higher Education Funding Council for England review in 2008 found three-quarters of British universities had integrated third-stream activities into their mission, though some critics question whether third-stream funding has translated into meaningful commitments, particularly by elite institutions.

Australian governments have declined proposals for similar funding of third-stream schemes, despite endorsement in reports such as Higher Education at the Crossroads, commissioned in 2002 by then education minister Brendan Nelson. Nonetheless, local practice has developed. The University of Melbourne, for example, embraced ‘knowledge transfer’ in 2005 – a commitment to bind closely research, teaching and engagement, and support it through dedicated senior leadership and funding schemes for worthwhile projects. Here the intention was not just ‘giving back’, but a commitment to a dialogue with society and industry.

Can engagement mean more than bolting additional activities onto an existing structure, and instead go to the core of the university mission? There are three prominent strands in the engagement discussion. The first is civic in spirit, as universities open the cultural and intellectual riches of campus to a public wider than staff and students. For some institutions this means collaborative work with Indigenous communities and projects abroad that combine study with volunteering. The strong presence of Australian universities in Timor-Leste underscores a mission beyond immediate education and research goals.

A second strand is global outlook – creating the university as a hub for international exchanges and learning, a task made easier by digital technologies. 

The third characteristic of engagement is the ideal of economic contribution. This began with a promise of technology transfer, in which research findings flow ‘downstream’. It has become, over time, a commitment to economic prosperity through patents, spin-offs and incubator programs for start-ups by students and staff. The agenda has broadened to include student interest in employment skills through work-integrated learning, internships and mentoring. Engagement now sees ‘enterprise professors’ appointed in many public universities, developing personal connections between the worlds of academia and industry.


TAKEN TOGETHER THESE strands point to a rounded idea of engagement, not strictly speaking a third stream but a means to enhance the traditional university mission. Yet tensions remain. Not all teaching aims at employment, nor does all research produce ‘impact’. The scholarly vocation has its own logic, its own specialisation that talks to peers rather than industry. The challenge is not to replace traditional activities with engagement but, instead, to integrate them – drawing engagement into the design of teaching and research so each reinforces the other.

Meanwhile there are models close to hand to suggest how research, teaching and engagement can work as a single enterprise. While much talk of industry engagement uses examples from engineering – advising car manufacturers on design or developing new materials – an integrated approach has long characterised medical education in Australia. 

Medical schools are closely aligned with hospitals, and usually co-located. Students encounter patients and the routines of medical life through clinical rounds. Work-integrated learning, internships and mentoring are all standard in teaching, particularly for upper-year students. For staff, offices within hospitals are unremarkable. Medical academics conduct clinics, teach and research as part of hospital duties. The exchange with patients can be particularly fruitful – the clinic is a place to understand ailments and conditions first hand, and incorporate observations into research analysis. The hospital offers patient populations for clinical trials and so, in turn, gives patients early access to new research. The result is a workplace where teaching, research and engagement interact constantly, contributing materially to healthcare in Australia.

This capacity of universities to integrate disparate activities has not been missed by large technology companies. The Microsoft ‘campus’ in Redwood, Washington State, and new private institutes in India, specialising in technology and attached to large firms such as Infosys, adopt the collegiate model. Company values stress the importance of knowledge and independent discovery, of self-directed workers, or collaboration and time at work to pursue personal research projects. Rarely is flattery so sincere.


THE ANCIENT MONASTERIES of England, Wales and Ireland were destroyed when still wealthy and influential. They came under political challenge when state ideology changed. Australian universities perceive similar risks to their position – governments impatient with expensive public operations that insist on autonomy, industry keen to access expertise locked up in scholarship, private players anxious to own profitable markets now dominated by public universities, digital entrepreneurs keen to talk down traditional tertiary education in favour of new commercial models. Online providers now offer their own qualifications, while consulting firms have moved into executive education, claiming space once the province of business schools. This formidable array of challenges is replicated in other domains such as public broadcasting, where the virtues of independence and objectivity hold little appeal for government. They await an ambitious monarch with a new philosophy of privatisation and an urgent need for cash.

Universities recognise the need for continued relevance – embracing engagement while retaining those activities that animate tertiary education as worthwhile. The expansion of universities across the nation has connected tertiary education to more Australians than ever before, and few communities fail to grasp the local economic benefits of international students. Research may be criticised as arcane, yet the constant media reporting of medical breakthroughs suggest some public appetite for the work of universities when they add significantly to knowledge. 

Engagement offers a further means to animate teaching and research, drawing them together around a mission of service and public spirit. It is a conversation that is in process, and still some way from consensus and an agreed definition. The discussion recognises that universities are seeking a balance – no longer ‘a place apart’ but not ‘disappearing into the city’. Launching a research centre at the National University of Ireland in Galway in 2012, poet, former academic and president of Ireland, Michael Higgins, argued:

Universities are both apart from and a part of society. They are apart in the sense that they provide a critically important space for grasping the world as it is and – importantly – for re-imagining the world as it ought to be. The academic freedom to pursue the truth and let the chips fall where they may isn’t a luxury – in fact it is a vital necessity in any society that has the capability for self-renewal. But universities are also a part of our societies. What’s the point unless the accumulated knowledge, insight and vision are put at the service of the community? With the privilege to pursue knowledge comes the civic responsibility to engage and put that knowledge to work in the service of humanity.

Engagement is a commitment to public value that embeds universities in the world. It binds teaching and research with meaningful connections beyond the academy, and brings expertise to play in the community. Properly managed and skilfully implemented, engagement strategies will educate universities and those who use them about relevance, and enthuse more about the possibilities of collaboration. By better connecting universities with their wider social and business setting, engagement may prove the reason public universities do not follow the monasteries, priories, convents and friaries into darkness and ruin.

Griffith Review