William Cowan (University of Waterloo, Canada and University of Maastricht, Netherlands)
Robin Cowan (University of Maastricht, Netherlands and BETA, Université Louis Pasteur, France)
Patrick Llerena (BETA, Université Louis Pasteur, France)
Universities, private and public alike, indubitably compete, and in many ways. But over which spoils? There is general agreement that the markets in which they compete are not normal ones: almost no contemporary university pursues profit-maximization as it ultimate goal. What, then, is the goal? A standard justification for the public support of the university, or any other institution, is that it provides some public good. If the products of a university could be privately owned and were easily appropriable, it would be difficult to justify public funding. Consequently, one way to seek the superordinate goal of universities is to ask what public goods they can provide, which cannot be provided in other ways.
This paper argues that the recent unfortunate evolution of the university’s role during the last half century is a result of misunderstanding the process of innovation, and of mistaking the purpose of research done within universities. This misunderstanding, shared between university administrations and the governments that fund them, induced universities to compete inappropriately both with vocational schools and with industrial laboratories, which engage in activities that occur on much shorter time scales. We argue that universities ought to be competing in a much different race than public policy now encourages. Our conclusion is not that competition is antithetical to universities but that the unique role universities should occupy is subverted when the university is expected to compete in the direct provision of industrial innovation or vocational education.