Publicly subsidized universities ought to fulfil three missions – teaching, research, and service to the community – as defined by their objectives and their mutual implication.
For signatories of the present manifesto these missions have the following objectives:
- preserving knowledge as accumulated through history, producing new knowledge and passing on both old and new knowledge to as many students as possible along with the questions they have prompted;
- training students in research methodologies, in critical analysis of the social consequences of scientific issues, practices and findings, in the development of free thinking, avoiding any form of dogma, with the common good as an objective as well as the acquisition of competence for a responsible professional activity;
- contributing to the reflection of social systems on themselves, particularly on the kind of model they use for their own development.
Nowadays current modes of governance in universities run against the above definition of what a university ought to be. Their mantras are efficiency, profitability, competitiveness. Universities are invited to become the agents of maximum production in as little time as possible, to turn out scientists and professionals that are competitive, flexible and adapted to market demands – the improvement of humanity is then measured in terms of economic growth and technical breakthroughs, and the progress of universities in terms of ‘critical mass.’
Consequently, universities are subjected to more and more frequent international evaluations and audits that measure their respective productivity and contribute to their positions in various rankings.
Though they do not deny that university practices and their effects have to be assessed, the signatories note that current evaluations are based on narrow criteria, that are often formal and fashioned on standardized practices; that the competition they foster among universities leads to a race to publish, with the number of published papers sometimes prevailing on their interest; that procedures involve cumbersome red tape with recurrent reminders that the logic universities have to comply with is the logic of markets and globalization.
Beyond the minimum endowments granted to universities, the selection of research that can be financed is largely determined by calls for tenders and the size and reputation of the teams that apply. Such a situation distorts the purpose of university research, which ought to be open to projects carried by small, relatively unknown teams. Rather, it favours the submission of well presented projects rather than of projects that could further knowledge.
Subsidies granted to universities often depend on student populations. In the case of a closed envelope, this leads to ‘hunting for students,’ which in turn may entail a lesser quality teaching as well as the risk of doing away with important but small departments.
University teachers are expected to explain what profession-related forms of expertise they are to develop in students. While it is imperative to teach students the skills they will need in their professional activities, highlighting these skills might lead teachers to overly stress utilitarian and saleable knowledge at the expense of basic sciences and of reflexive and critical knowledge.
The involvement of university staff in domestic management and representation is more and more numerous and encroaches on services to society at large.
The above mentioned elements contribute to increase the strain to which university staff are subjected and may possibly destroy the ideals of once passionate teachers and researchers.
To support their vision of the university, the signatories of the present manifesto call for the following measures:
- making sure that university research is allowed the kind of freedom that is necessary to any finding, the right to waver and the right to fail;
- reaching a correct balance between critical and operational knowledge and between general and profession-related skills in the various study courses offered by the universities;
- promoting services to society;
- reining in the production of red-tape, the rat-race and other stress factors that prevent university staff from carrying out their duties properly;
- assessing university practices and their consequences in view of the specific objectives of universities and not of market expectations.
To meet these requirements they consider that it is necessary:
- to assert the objectives of the university as defined above;
- to provide global subsidies for higher education;
- to use criteria for awarding public money that promote diversity in research and that preserve the quality and plurality of study courses on offer.
They call upon:
Public authorities and academic bodies to recognize that universities ought to try and achieve objectives that are in tune with their identity and social function, and provide the means thereof;
University staff to oppose measures and practices that go against the positions defined in this manifesto; to promote an in-depth analysis of the growing unease among university staff, of its causes and of possible solutions; to participate in concrete actions – to be decided on depending on contexts – to put forward their positions and proposals wherever necessary; to support movements and actions outside the university that aim at the common good.