When I came up to Cambridge forty years ago, roughly 20% of the university’s income came from research and 80% from teaching. Now these figures are reversed, with 80% of the university’s income from research funding. The impact of this shift on the values and practices of the university is massive. The days when dons were expected to sit with their students talking about life late into the night or to go on reading weekends in the country have probably passed for ever.
We speak now more and more about research grants, and less and less about student successes. Yet both the popular image of the university and, to a certain degree, government thinking have barely caught up with this long-term sea-change. In the public sphere, it seems, the talk is all about student access and teaching quality (while state funding for teaching has been systematically cut). Cambridge’s status as a top world-class university depends on its research record.
So the first change I hope to see in the coming years will be a proper debate about what a university is for, and some decent policies set in place to reflect the conclusions of that debate. It is something of a paradox that across the developing world, more and more universities are being founded and supported according to the model of the leading western institutions, just as the West seems to be going through a period of severe doubt about the purpose and even the success of universities.
We need an international, informed, productive discussion about how in a global world national interests frame, but do not determine, a university’s agenda; about how teaching and research are interlinked; about what the drivers of research and teaching can and should be. Where can this conversation take place? It should be clear that this cannot be a discussion for Britain alone, for the government alone, or for the universities alone. So what can we do to create the right forums to produce instructive argumentation to lead policy?
There are different significant roles that a university plays. No-one, I think, would doubt that one of those roles is finding answers to the most pressing questions that humanity faces today. Many of these most pressing problems in their simplest expression are painfully familiar: inequality, social divisiveness and social justice, food security, religious and political violence, climate change, public health, technology and political freedom.
What is less often emphasized, but to my mind absolutely crucial, is that these questions not only cannot be answered adequately by approaches from within a single discipline, but the problems they address are actually exacerbated by attempts to do so. Whether we call this interdisciplinarity or whether we find a less-obvious buzzword to capture the need for more joined up thinking, the reasons to move academic research beyond the silos of disciplinary focus are compelling.
A simple example. The level of maternal mortality in Africa is unacceptable. It is easy to introduce more and better hospitals, with, at least, the right funding. How, then, do people get to the hospital, if they can be persuaded to go? A solution here is more and better roads and transport – again a solution easy enough with adequate financial backing and decent engineers.
But men are unwilling to take their wives who are suffering from pre-eclampsia, the single biggest cause of death, to hospitals, and often delay to wait for the decision of a village head before making the journey, thus condemning the woman to a painful death. When asked why, they offer two reasons for their hesitation: one, that they have more than one wife to offset such risks; and two, that a woman who has had sex with more than one man gets this disease. Both reasons may seem simply sexist to us (even if western medicine would, surprisingly enough, agree that having children by more than one father does indeed significantly increase the risk of pre-eclampsia).
The point is that maternal mortality cannot be lowered simply by hospitals and roads, but will require a far more complex engagement with a community’s beliefs and attitudes. That is where a different sort of research is required – both into the ethics and the pragmatics of any proposed intervention. Medical science alone, even with the support of engineering, cannot cure maternal mortality in Africa.
So what I expect to see happening in the next decades is far more coherent and integrated thinking about what sorts of interdisciplinary, collaborative work is required, how it can be achieved, and what it actually means to genuinely collaborate – to learn each others’ languages and procedures, and to construct integrated programmes of research.
As my example above demonstrates, when these major questions are approached, this will involve thinking much harder about the necessary and fundamental links between STEM subjects and the humanities and social sciences. This will have to be an international process as the problems are international.
In my opinion, you need a top-class disciplinary formation to bring an expertise to the table. We cannot throw out the huge advances that the disciplines have made, but we also require openness, trust and exploratory spirit if these huge and pressing questions are going to be answered in the best possible manner.
Simon Goldhill is Professor in Greek Literature and Culture at the University of Cambridge, where he is also John Harvard Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences and Director of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH).
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