Morning all. Happy New Year. Welcome back. I’m in Southeast Asia this week taking in some sights. Travel in Asia always makes me think a lot about the ways in which different parts of the world conceive of higher education and the extent to which we both have and haven’t overcome these divisions today.
Universities, as we understand them today, are a distinctively European invention. They first appeared in Mediterranean countries in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, usually under church authority (their governance structures were largely lifted from the church as well). In various ways, this model spread around the world (mainly via colonialism) by the early 20 th century. At one level this reproduction was pretty faithful. They mostly have similar internal hierarchies, cover the same disciplines using the same nomenclature, issue roughly the same credentials, etc. And so, almost no one thinks twice about considering all universities around the world as being generally the same type of entity. There are differences, certainly, but no one blinks an eye at the idea of comparing institutions in different parts of the world through global rankings. There are lots of critiques of rankings, but you almost never hear the argument that its comparing apples to oranges. They are all apples, so to speak.
Although universities retain a lot of administrative and disciplinary heritage from Europe, these new institutions were planted into a context where advanced learning already happened. There was already a strong Arab culture of learning and science, for instance, although it did not tend to be housed in teaching institutions. Likewise, China and most of the various countries within its cultural orbit had teaching institutions geared towards Imperial examination systems which predated European universities by centuries, if not a full millennium. These institutions did not survive the transition to universities, the beliefs about the function of higher education did carry over to infuse the new institutions with some spirit of the old.
Beyond that, of course, different cultures had different ideas about the functions of inquiry in the first place. As Julian Baggini points out in his book How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy , the idea of truth-seeking as an absolute value is much more prevalent in the west than in the east, where the idea of harmony is accorded much greater importance. This, naturally, has some consequences in terms of the ways that universities are governed, but also subtly changes the role of the institution itself.
So, to be blunt: when I see pieces like this one asking “what are universities for”, about Central European University and its expulsion from Budapest as punishment for not getting with the whole illiberal democracy thing, or when people react to high scores in international rankings for universities from authoritarian countries (e.g. China) or countries with significant limits on freedom of expression (e.g. Singapore) by saying that measures of academic freedom need to be included in rankings, I have very mixed feelings. Of course, I feel strongly that the role of a university in my society should be centred on notions of academic freedom and should be a bastion for freedom of thought in society more generally. I’m just not sure that this is in fact a universal value for universities.
There are other university traditions, not all of which require liberal democracy to flourish: Lord knows the continual ascent of Tsinghua, National University of Singapore and others in international rankings is evidence of that (of course, we’ve known that about the lack of a relationship between liberalism and Science for years – even sixty years ago, the Soviets were showing us how hard sciences could flourish even under totalitarian conditions). And so, when I hear people say, quite obviously with the best of intentions, that “academic freedom is a universal value in higher education” and ask that institutions be judged accordingly, I have to ask myself: is it that westerners want to impose their institutional values on others? Or is it rather that deep down, they do not believe that universities in illiberal countries are universities at all?