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"What light do professional doctorates throw on the question of what counts as knowledge in the academy at the start of the twenty-first century?" (Bourner et al. 2001: 81)

Author - Sandra Fisher

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Knowledge and economic imperatives

The academy now recognises it has lost its ‘traditional status as primary producer of ‘‘worthwhile’’ knowledge’. The shift from Mode 1 science to Mode 2 knowledge production means that the academy is one of many players in the knowledge market. Due to the ‘demands of the knowledge economy and the sheer explosion of information enabled by IT’ universities are ‘now largely unable to control the production, legitimation and exchange of knowledge as they once did’ (Usher 2002: 8).

The ‘struggles over the nature of appropriate links between education, vocationalism and wealth creation are as old as universities’. The ‘troubled history of opening up university education to wider sections of the community can be traced back for centuries’ (Winter et al. 2000: 27).

Barnett (2000b: 24) poses the question ‘Can the university be a site of disinterested reason while also giving to society the new forms of knowing that society calls for?’ However, the question could be posed whether the academy was ever a site of disinterested reason or inquiry. Whether in fact the awarding of the Ph.D. as the highest academic accolade was not an attempt to reserve this award for members of the academy. Is the academy’s engagement with the knowledge society simply an act of self-interest (i.e. survival in a Mode 2 knowledge production society) or more optimistically is it now recognising that society comprises of many knowledge producers who are worthy of inclusion and recognition.

Barnett (2000b) contends the university ‘wants it both ways’: its knowledge to be ‘value-free’ and ‘yet not value-less’. Perhaps Barnett (2000b) is correct that attempting to ascribe ‘value freedom’ to knowledge is only leading to a ‘cul de sac’ in trying to formulate a role for the academy in the twenty-first century (Barnett 2000b: 25). In my view, the production of value-free knowledge is not possible. The recognition that vested interests lie both within and outside the academy is more realistic. It is not the presence of vested interests that is of concern. It is not the expectation that knowledge production might result in some sort of return either to the economy or the academy. The concern is: Will it become unacceptable within the academy to contest knowledge production when it is presented as contributing to the enhancement of the economy?

Now ‘concerns are being expressed within the polity that HE needs to contribute in measurable terms to the creation of the knowledge society’ (Robertson 1999: 19). In Ireland the Higher Education Authority (2002) argues that investment in basic research yields ‘returns to society’:

The primary justification for investment in basic research is health and social gain, and economic development and advancement. Furthermore there are two primary economic justifications for investment in basic research: The first relates to the return on investment and the second to the enhancement of human capital.
(Higher Education Authority 2002: 24)

While return on investment might be interpreted as bringing wealth to private industrialists, it must not be overlooked that individual academics have benefited financially in engaging in commercial activities. The statistics as outlined in The Times newspaper (16 April 2001) record that ‘more than a third of Oxford’s dons are now multimillionaires’ and Oxford ‘has a share in over 32 companies which were founded to profit from ideas by academics’ (Evans 2002: 5). It may be a case of the ‘pot calling the kettle black’ if the academy expresses distaste that private industry or the state seek a return on investment in education. There is now a rise of academic capitalism, which is a result of a shortage of research funds and has ‘forced academics to sell their capital on the market’. The appeal for industry in purchasing academic capital is that higher education institutions contain ‘publicly subsidized academic researchers, so private costs are absorbed at the public expense’. Universities are better placed to bear the cost of failed research (Robertson 1999: 26).

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