The business of modern universities is research as well as teaching. That was not always true. When the university curriculum was based mostly on ancient texts, new knowledge was not necessarily welcome. In fact it might be dangerous!
But that changed a couple of hundred years ago, when universities in Germany, led by Tübingen and Berlin, made the exploration of new knowledge central. The idea of a research university spread. In elite universities in the United States this turned into the model of a university with graduate schools conducting research and awarding research degrees – especially the PhD.
Research universities in the global North became the centre of a world-wide economy of knowledge. This economy had its origin in the old empires. Not only were mineral and agricultural wealth brought back to the imperial centres, but also a wealth of information. Famous figures went out to the colonised world – Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin – and brought back their data.
In due course this became routine, even automated. It provided a foundation on which a great deal of so-called ‘Western’ science was built, including evolutionary biology, geology, astronomy, oceanography and sociology.
It still happens. Much of the data for climate science, epidemiology, radioastronomy, ecology, or development economics comes from the global South. There is unequal exchange here, just as there is in commodities and finance.
There are power shifts in this knowledge economy: notably, China has become a major source of research output especially in physical and biomedical sciences. But the research world remains, effectively, a monoculture. Other forms of knowledge are strongly marginalised by this system, treated as customary or pre-scientific thought.
Because this economy of knowledge gave the strategic role – especially in the making of theory, methodology, and applied science – to a relatively small elite of institutions, what happened to them was capable of affecting the whole. Research universities have been swept by the neoliberal tsunami. The decline of public funding, the ideological change away from public benefit to private profit, the unchecked power of profit-driven corporations, and the growth of insecure labour, have all had their effect.
Funding for research in the public interest has been squeezed harder and harder. A typical situation: the national public-sector agency supporting university research in my country is the Australian Research Council (ARC). In the category of basic or ‘discovery’ research, the ARC now funds fewer than one in five of the projects submitted. Four in five get no grant at all.
Researchers in all fields are now pushed, and strongly urged by university managers, to find private-sector funding. That funding is available mainly for studies that corporations think will help them make money, or make them look good. One result: lots of money for research about pharmaceutical products; little money for research about pharmaceutical corporations.
The effects are pervasive. Talented researchers spend enormous amounts of time and effort not doing research because they are hunting for grants. Fields of research that are not easily commercialised, and don’t have military pay-off, struggle and shrink. Short-term cost-cutting becomes more important than sustaining a research workforce, and a very high proportion of universities’ research staff are now in insecure jobs.
Research findings are mainly circulated through journals, and journals provide a revealing view of the forces at work. Practically all the prestigious journals are located in the global North. Over the last generation, a remarkable number of them have been taken over by a small group of publishing corporations. These publishers – the key ones are Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Taylor & Francis – have devised a wonderful system.
The publishers receive, for free, articles based on research funded by agencies like the ARC, because the researchers need to publish. The articles are curated, usually for free, by editors and reviewers, who are employed as university lecturers.
The publishers then sell journal subscriptions to the universities’ libraries, at steep monopoly prices, which they can charge because the universities must have the journals. They charge fees for other researchers, students, and the general public to read the articles, via paywalls. Their profits enable them to take over more journals… The system has a horrid elegance. Its effect is mainly to restrict access to research-based knowledge, and drain university finances into corporate pockets.
There is resistance to these inequalities and rip-offs. The publishing oligopoly is contested by the Open Access movement. That has its problems too: some Open Access journals simply shift the costs from the reader to the researcher.
The marginalisation of other knowledge formations is also contested. There is today an international revival of Indigenous Knowledge projects. It is worth emphasising that Indigenous Knowledge is not static, but is constantly developing in its own way – for instance, new approaches to indigenous statistics.
There have also been very interesting developments linking Islamic thought with empirical science and professional knowledges. And there is more.
To sum up, the world of research is no more an ivory tower than the world of teaching is. Here too, we desperately need a democratic agenda for universities.