Beyond the Utilitarian University

Paper to Forum on the Future of Universities, University of Canterbury, 17 November 1999.

Keywords: Education;

“They measure knowledge by bulk, as it lies in a rude block, without symmetry, without design.”(1)

The Idea of a University(2)

If this independent scholar may begin with a quotation from another independent scholar, albeit a much more eminent one. John Stuart Mill wrote in his Utilitarianism:

“It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparisons knows both sides.”(3)

This is a profoundly subversive passage, not only because Mill was challenging the utilitarianism of his father James Mill and his mentor Jeremy Bentham by suggesting there was a hierarchy of utilities, but because it also provides a critique of today’s economic policies. As last year’s Nobel Prize winner in economics Amartya Sen writes

“Utilitarianism has been the dominant ethical theory – and, inter alia, the most influential theory of justice – for much over a century. The traditional economics of welfare and public policy was for a very long time dominated by this approach, initiated in its modern form by Jeremy Bentham.”(4)

It would be wrong to interpret Sen to imply that utilitarianism is no longer so important in public policy. Rather he is arguing for an alternative approach, in which the possibility of choice – of opportunities – is given a separate role from what he (and Adam Smith) called “opulence” – the abundance of material things. The pig or the fool may be happy because they are sated but in their satisfaction they have no choice, no knowledge of the possibilities that lie beyond their current state.

Nevertheless, a utilitarianism which focuses on material production and consumption continues to dominate much of New Zealand public policy, including that to the tertiary sector. The 1988 Report on Post Compulsory Education and Training in New Zealand nicely captured the focus when it said that ‘distinctions between education and training should be avoided’.(5) We may leave philosophers to ponder on the “should”, and turn to the consequence of collapsing the concepts of education and training together. In effect, the sole function tertiary institutions becomes the development of vocational skills for the accumulation of wealth to satisfy pigs and fools. Any educational role becomes subservient, and may all but be eliminated.

This issue is not a new one. One hundred and fifty years ago John Henry (Cardinal) Newman in his great advocacy of liberal education in The Idea of a University, poured scorn upon advocates of the utilitarian university:

“[T]hey insist that Education should be confined to some particular and narrow end, and issue some definite work, which can be weighed and measured. They argue as if everything, as well as every person, had its price; and that where there has been great outlay, they have a right to expect a return in kind. This they call making Education and Instruction `useful’, and `Utility’ becomes their watchword. With a fundamental principle of this nature, they very naturally go on to ask, what there is to show for the expense of a University; what is the real worth in the market of the article called `Liberal Education,’ on the supposition that it does not teach us definitely how to advance our manufactures, or improve our lands, or to better our civil economy; or again, if it does not at once make this man a lawyer, that an engineer, and that a surgeon, or at least if it does not lead to discoveries in chemistry, astronomy, geology, magnetism, and science of every kind.”(6)

With a few minor changes this could well summarize public policy today, in which the function of universities is to provide the skills and the technologies for economic growth. It follows that given this objective, and given today’s conventional wisdom of how economic growth occurs, the policy framework for universities is that they are business enterprises responding to the vocational and consumption aspirations of paying students in a competitive market environment.

However, Newman had a broader objective for universities: that of cultivating the intellect, which is another way of describing Mill’s concern for philosophers over pigs, and Sen’s concern for real choice. Now this does not mean that universities should have nothing to do with economic growth. To the contrary, there are a number of principled and practical reasons it should:

First, as Sen makes very clear, while opulence is not the same thing as choice, greater opulence can in some circumstances give greater choice. He advocates a strategy of developing material wealth and choice, not an either or.

Second, universities are enormous users of the material output of the economy, and they cannot idly stand by consuming such quantities without contributing to its production.

Third, universities can contribute to increased material prosperity, as well as to opportunity and the intellect. If they do not, some other institutions will take over that role, and the universities will be diminished and unable to pursue their other objectives very well either.

Fourth, the economy is one of the central features of the human condition, and inevitably the universities will want to be involved with it in all its various manifestations.

Newman believed in liberal education, but the university he tried to develop was to have faculties of engineering, law and medicine as well as arts and science. We need to avoid the bizarre situation of a Department of Sanskrit, say, justifying itself solely by its contribution to economic well being. Yet the current policy framework forces it to do so, or to be eliminated as its funding is cut. My school motto was ‘Altiora Peto’ – I seek higher things. If that is good enough for a secondary school, it is good enough for universities.

I could spend the remainder of this presentation discussing how we might fine-tune the tertiary sector to pursue better material prosperity. Instead, I shall take up the challenge that Mill, Sen and Newman – and just about every other major thinker – present, and ask how we might change the public policy framework to enable universities to seek higher things, without compromising their contribution to opulence. As is appropriate for an economist, I shall look at the demand side – the objectives of a university – and the supply side – the production process by which a university meets those objectives.

The Objectives of a University

It is fundamental to a liberal society that there is no simple objective for a university or, indeed, for many other social institutions. The notion that a university’s performance can be characterised by a financial bottom line, or the state of its balance sheet, is flawed. This was taken to the absurd limit by the Scott-Smelt report, which seemed to think each university was a property company owned by the central government. Certainly the physical assets of a university are substantial, valuable in market terms, and evident. But as I report in The Commercialisation of New Zealand, they are only a small part of the totality of the assets which make up a university, and the market value of the faculty and student interests far exceeding any property interest. It may be that universities should separate out their property interests into a separate property company, but that would be to quarantine an obsession with physical assets from the central activities of a university.

The single notion which might best summarise a university’s performance may be ‘reputation’, its standing in the world of international scholarship, of the community in which it serves, among its alumni their friends and employers. Reputation is intangible but as Cassio says to Iago:

“Reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” (Othello: II, iii)

Assessing reputation is not easy, but public policy might usefully ask itself whether a particular action enhances or diminishes the reputation of the nation’s universities, and among whom.

Who are the trustees, the guardians of a university’s reputation? In the first instance it has to be the faculty, with the authority embodied in an academic body such as a professorial board or senate. In addition there has to be some Council to represent the wider interests of the University. The Scott-Smelt report, with its obsession of universities as property companies, advocated a Council consisting of business people appointed by the government. That could not have more greatly misrepresented a university, not only because it gave oppressive authoritarian powers to the central government, but also because it fails to recognize the diversity of the university objectives. The typical Council with its representatives of staff and students, the Court of Convocation, the local community and secondary schools, economic sectoral interest, is a sensible attempt to reflect the diversity. The Maori has to be included. I suspect a special effort needs to be added to reflect the growing creative activities of a our institutions: the chamber orchestra and not just the School of Music, the writer in residence and not just the Department of English, the art collection and not just the School of Fine Arts, and so on. Should other tertiary institutions be represented? Perhaps where there are close alliances. Should there be a conscious effort to include the growing number of independent scholars? Probably. The ability of Council to add appointees to cover gaps in expertise and interests seems prudent. I have deliberately cast the net widely, to suggest that Councils should not be small. The emphasis should be on representativeness of all the diverse interest universities have. But practically they should delegate decision making to small specialist and expert executive committees. The exception to the current pattern is appointees by the Minister of Education which is problematic in a liberal democracy.

The funding of each university also needs to be as diverse as possible, although given that New Zealand has not a tradition of private foundations and charities, the majority will come from public sources. Even so the development of university foundations and alumni contributions is to be welcomed, especially as individual donations can add the idiosyncrasy of the institution. (I was at a university which was given a valuable stamp collection.) Business and sectoral contributions should not be ignored, providing the university does not become too dependent upon them. That is a caveat for any funding source.

Public funding needs to be diverse and cushioned from direct political interference. The abolition of the University Grants Committee was an unfortunate step away from the liberal democratic state, since it exposes the universities to a direct relationship with the Minister and government. If I had more time I would also discuss the increasing centralisation of the government research funding, whereas diversity of judgement is necessary. New Zealand governance arrangements have put considerable powers of intervention in the hands of government ministers in the name of accountability. The tacit assumption is that they will not use their totalitarian powers. However the past record is that politicians have intervened excessively and I see no guarantee they may not in the future. Better to develop constitutional arrangements which prevent that possibility.

One of the major funding sources of a utilitarian university is fees from students. They are justified because their courses are seen a primarily vocational, with no benefit other than the higher income the student will eventually end up with as a result of the course. We can dispute over what part of the total costs of a university are for teaching, and just what proportion students should pay – all very utilitarian. However, I want to ask a more fundamental question. If the utilitarian model has no distinction between education and training, why should they not also pay for their secondary school education, or their primary school education, or even pre-school education? This was not a question the PCET committee addressed, but I take it their answer would have been that it was all a matter of time and political strategy. After tertiary student fees have been ramped up as high as possible, compulsory secondary school fees would be introduced and increased.

I want to challenge this by a quite different conception of education in a liberal democracy. There is surely the principle that New Zealand children have an educational entitlement (which encompasses a vocational element too). It is best articulated in Peter Fraser’s famous statement:

“The government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever [her or] his level of academic ability, whether he [or she] be rich or poor, whether he [or she] live in country or town, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which her [or she] is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of [her or] his powers.”

Or from a different perspective, but with the same underlying idea, we have R.H. Tawney’s

“To serve educational needs, without regard to the vulgar irrelevancies of class and income is a part of a teacher’s honour.”

This entitlement – (broadly) free access to educational opportunity – is a feature of all liberal democracies, and is a part of a package which includes a reasonable standard of living, health care, access to a safe and sustainable physical and social environment, and so on, in addition to civil rights. The extent of these economic entitlements reflects the overall national circumstances. They will be less extensive in a poorer country than a rich one. A very poor country might only be able to supply an entitlement of primary education, a rich country will include tertiary education in its entitlement. Where does New Zealand fit on this spectrum? From the 1960s – the Parry Report is the marker – the tertiary educational entitlement was broaden as more students – notably women and from minorities – came up to university and as polytechs became more available. However since the early 1990s that entitlement is being steadily diminished. Are we no longer a rich country and can only offer educational entitlements up to the end of secondary school?

I would like to see a systematic review of the notion of educational entitlement, preferably by a committee not stacked with utilitarians. My inclination is that all New Zealand citizens should be eligible for a tertiary entitlement of three years of post secondary school education and vocational training. After that I would be willing to countenance full cost charging, because by that stage most courses are getting vocational. There would be some exceptions. Assistance may be necessary to ensure there is an adequate proportion of cultural minorities in some programs where culture matters – medicine is an obvious example. Government agencies may want to subsidise the fees for some programs to ensure there is an adequate supply – that was long accepted in teacher training.

I would also provide for an fourth year’s educational entitlement for an extra year of liberal education – essentially it would enable a student to do an honours year in arts or pure science. This raises a very important principle. There has been a tendency to treat all tertiary courses as equally meritorious. It is easy to see how a utilitarian might come to that conclusion, while the government has been hesitant to “pick winners” as the jargon goes. If picking winners means detailed choice – choosing between Sanskrit and Sociology – then it is well for the government to stay well away. But governments can, and should, contribute to the making of broad choices. This paper has insisted that the government should have a commitment to liberal democracy over totalitarianism. That is picking a winner. And a liberal democrat has no difficulty giving some preference to a liberal education.

Admittedly, there will be problems about identifying what is “liberal” education but the gains from making the distinction will outweigh the costs of the occasional mistake or ambiguity. To take another example, it is not necessary to link the same research allowance to every course grant. Some courses are more involved in research than others.

The Production Process in a University

Thus far I have looked at the demand side of the tertiary sector, emphasizing in a liberal democracy there is a need for a diversity of decisions. How is the supply side to respond?

As already foreshadowed, universities are not business and should not be run as businesses. Certainly they should use the resources available to them as efficiently as possible, and should invest prudently. But unlike a conventional business that is a means to an end, not the end itself. The approach since 1989 of trying to force universities into a business mode of operation is ultimately flawed – unless the objective is utilitarian.

This has an important implication for vice-chancellors, who under the 1989 legislation were set up as chief executives of quasi-businesses. Whatever the law says, the practice has to be of the Vice Chancellor as primus inter pares – the first among the equals. Recall that reputation is the simplest way of thinking about a university’s objectives, and that reputation rests with the faculty – the college of academics. The Vice Chancellor heads the college, in a collegial relationship of respect for leadership.

On the other hand, individual faculty members are going to have to take more responsibility for the resources they utilize. This is not a problem unique to the universities – for instance in the medical profession is increasingly facing the challenge of being resource managers. It is partly a question of efficiency, but it is also one of autonomy for if the medics do not take resources into consideration when the make clinical decisions, they will find non-medics increasingly taking the medical decisions for them. The same applies to academics.

This devolution of resource management closer to academic units has been going on over the last few years. Sadly it has not reflecting an academic philosophy so much as the desperation of the central university administration to cope with the declining resources. Even more sadly, most academics have not understood what is going on. Even were the devolution not occurring they would still be under pressure from the resource decreases. It is not a happy situation, and there is little that I can offer – I have spent a quarter of a century working with the medical profession to get them to understand the same problem, and still there is resistance. However I do think that a frank discussion between the central administration and departments would be useful.

That discussion is likely to identify a major weakness of the current policy framework. It is captured by the remark in the white paper, Tertiary Education in New Zealand, that ‘funding for up to three years may be allocated to encourage strategically-focused research portfolios rather than short-term projects.’ Three years for a research project is short term. Similarly, teaching is having to operate on a shorter cycle as its resource allocation becomes increasingly at the whim of students. What this could mean is that eventually the teaching process becomes very flexible, with only temporary teachers hired for six or twelve months a time, with the only permanent university staff being the administration. This will do little for research, scholarship or reputation. The alternative possibility is that there will be increased restriction of entry into course, so that the teaching process is stable, but students have no guarantees of activating their entitlements.

I shall not be surprised if the tertiary system evolves to a mix of the two approaches. Students would start off with open entry into general courses where it is possible to vary scale without compromising teaching standards and for which there is little concomitant scholarship or research. Further on there would be restricted entry for advanced courses, access being dependent upon attainment in the open entry courses. We already familiar with the case to intermediates to professional courses, but it may become more widespread. We may even have universities designating colleges – perhaps polytechs – to teach the open entry courses, because the culture of the different teaching may become so divergent.

Another weakness in the current system is the competitive pressures, which not only aggravate the instability of student demand, but seem to have lead to a deterioration of the efficacy of the supply side. Was the abandoning of the arrangements which gave an Architecture and Design School and a Conservatorium of Music between Victoria University of Wellington and the Wellington Polytechnic really necessary? The current policy framework which encourages competition rather than co-operation between tertiary institutions did not help. There are a number of areas where co-operation may be appropriate. One is the encouragement of specialisation of fields by department at post-graduate level, and the encouraging of graduates to go to the program which best covers their needs.

Another consequence of the competition for students is the deterioration of quality – quality in teaching, quality in content, quality in standards, quality and quantity in associated research and scholarship. There has always been a problem of quality attainment in every university, everywhere in the world. In my experience some of the officials who are passionate defenders of the past reforms are likely to start complaining about some of the bad courses and teachers they had. (They must have been badly taught, given their willingness to use personal anecdote as an alternative to analysis.) The competition and the resource pressures are threatening educational quality, for it is so easy to cut in the short term under stress.

There is no simple answer to maintaining quality standards. A less destructive environment and less resource pressures would be a beginning. The indications are that we are moving down a path which involves benchmarking. In the case of universities that benchmarking will typically be done against overseas universities or departments. (Polytechs may use New Zealand universities as their benchmarks, which will put a different sort of quality pressure on the universities.) This benchmarking is going to have to be done with some sensitivity. For instance, where courses and research areas are New Zealand directed. It would be easy to imitate US standards, say, as have a lot our economics departments, and end up providing the student with little knowledge of a very different New Zealand. While there may be universal principles, the content of the arts, the social sciences, and the environmental sciences do not have the universalism of the physical sciences.

My final observation about the academic production process is that in comparison to the overseas, New Zealand universities have a singular shortage of research centres of international excellence. Too often a local centre amounts to a room, a part-time faculty appointment (with part-time secretarial assistance), a letter head, and little more. Funding has been the constraint, and it is to be hoped that such public sources as Marsden funding, coupled with private monies, will lead to quality centres. Another source of such centres might be to form alliances with relevant Crown Research Institutes, perhaps ultimately leading to a beneficial merger.


There has always been a tendency for New Zealand universities to be utilitarian reflecting the practicality of New Zealand life and a lack of prominence of the intellectual. However, at no time since the Parry report has there been so much pressure to make New Zealand’s sole utilitarian vocational trainers.

At is issue is not merely resisting these pressures, but offering an alternative idea of the university which centres on tertiary education rather than training. From that idea there will arise a different policy framework – perhaps like the one I have explored here – one which does not treat a university as a business, and which recognizes the diversity of objectives which the ideal desires.

Because the modern mass university cannot isolate itself from the international, national, and local society in which it exists, any change to the policy framework – a reduction in its utilitarianism – will be of benefit to the wider society too, not least in its promotion of liberal democracy, of choice and opportunity, and of the value of the intellect.

1. J.H. Newman, The Idea of a University (1853) This edition Oxford, 1976, edited with introduction and notes by I.T. Kerr. p.125.
2. Much Most of the broad analysis in this presentation is developed in my two recent books: The Commercialisation of New Zealand (Auckland University Press, 1997), and The Whimpering of the State: Policy After MMP (Auckland University Press, 1999).
3. J.S. Mill (1863) ‘Utilitarianism’, page 260 of M. Warnock, (ed.) Utilitarianism, Collins, London, Fontana Library Edition, 1962.
4. A. Sen (1999) Development as Freedom, Knopf, New York, p.58.
5. G.R. Hawke, Report on Post Compulsory Education and Training in New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1981.
6. Op. cit. p.135.