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Fresh Threats To Academic Freedom

Media release
22 July 2008

Embargoed until 2pm on 22 July 2008

Fresh Threats To Academic Freedom

New Zealand universities are more than mere instruments of economic growth and development, a former vice-chancellor warned in Auckland today.

They must be vigilant not just in defending themselves against familiar threats to academic freedom, said Bryan Gould who led the University of Waikato for ten years from 1994. "They must also be alert to new challenges, which sometimes come in unfamiliar guises."

Mr Gould chairs the board of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, the main government funding body for science and technology.

He was opening the University of Auckland's Winter Lecture series on "Challenges for research in modern academia".

The danger today was not so much that universities were threatened by direct, hostile and deliberate assaults from governments or from the private sector, though it must not be assumed that these were things of the past, he said. "The threat arises from the growing importance that universities are increasingly invited to assume in promoting economic growth and development."

Commentators from across the political spectrum and from all parts of the economy agreed that universities were essential agents of economic change. "Our economic future is increasingly said to depend on the research effort undertaken by our universities and by their role in producing graduates with the skills needed to promote economic growth.

"This view is naturally congenial to the universities, since it affirms their value to society and appears to guarantee at least an approximation of adequate funding. But the argument comes with an unstated but potentially damaging downside - that this role is what universities are essentially about and that it is only to the extent that they fulfil that expectation that they will be supported and funded."

The danger then was that universities would find themselves compelled to follow particular paths to particular outcomes, said Mr Gould. "If it is asserted by political or business leaders that the universities have failed to come up with the required outcomes - that the economy is, for example, short of particular kinds of graduates or is handicapped by the failure to undertake particular kinds of research projects - then continued support and funding for the universities will be placed at risk."

The risk then was that universities would be tempted - so as to maintain continued public support and funding - to go along with the inviting but dangerous assumption that their only true value was as instruments of economic change. "In doing so, they would accept a barely recognised but increasingly damaging constraint on their freedom to pursue knowledge - and we would have significantly misread our own intellectual history.

"The great seminal idea that underpins the whole concept of human progress is that knowledge is unlimited, that the search for knowledge can be undertaken by anyone, and that it usually involves a voyage into uncharted waters.

"If universities were to limit themselves to only those voyages that identified their destinations in advance, this would mean not only a significant constraint on academic freedom but would close the door on some of the most exciting and rewarding contributions that universities are able to make to the total well-being of our society."

The Winter Lecture series continues for five further weeks. Details are


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