An Abridged Version of

Pseudo, Real and Great Universities,
and the University of Western Australia

Dr. Henry Schapper
Reader In Agricultural Economics,
The University of Western Australia

Almost every nation in the world has its universities. They are an essential requirement for the advancement of civilisation. Conceptually they originated with Socrates and his followers though in their modern form they are as recent as the Middle Ages.

An institution with a campus, Vice-Chancellor, annual degree-awarding ceremonies and a convocation may not be a real university, and an institution without these could be a real university. The idea of a university is not widely understood for universities are complex institutions and there are many pseudo-universities. Besides, universities do have enemies, within and without, chief among whom are powerful mindless educational bureaucrats, ignorant politicians, and those staff, students and members of the public who are simply wrong-headed about universities.

The essence of a real university is in its performance of a unique combination of functions: performance in this context meaning striving to achieve the highest possible levels of intellectual excellence for which academic freedom and autonomy are necessary conditions.

The Real University

Basic purpose. The basic purpose of the real university is in the performance of three functions:

the discovery of knowledge,
the dissemination of knowledge, and
concern for the use of knowledge.

Fulfillment of this basic purpose requires balance, integration and interaction between the university's functions which are more usually referred to as research, teaching and community service. Extreme imbalance such as research alone, would transform a university into a CSIRO, teaching alone, into a high school, and community service alone, into a meals-on-wheels kind of service. Nations all over the world have set up the same kind of institution in which the three functions are uniquely combined as a university giving it a comprehensiveness unmatched by any other educational institution.

Academic freedom. Achievement of the functions of the real university demands that it operates in conditions of academic freedom. This is the freedom to think what you like and to say what you think, without penalty other than that of being shown to be wrong. Socrates was put to death for claiming this freedom.

The reason Socrates was put to death is the same reason why today some people fear academic freedom for themselves and for others. It is that people correctly see in it the possibility of intellectual commitment and loyalty to values, truths and ideas which may conflict with the ideas and values which justify and support privilege and other vested interests. But the real university is about values, truths and ideas regardless of personal, political, religious or economic vested interests, regardless of who owns what, of who holds what beliefs, and of who holds what office in the land: the cat can smile at the queen!

Academic freedom is not always exercised by all staff and students but in a real university it is there, always for everyone.

Autonomy. The real university is self-governing; this is a requirement for academic freedom.

Autonomy and finance. Most universities in the world are financially dependent on government: in Australia they are wholly so. This financial dependence means that government determines the number and size of its universities, and whether to expand them or to contract them, and rightly so.

So far, the financial dependence of the University of Western Australia has not been used by the government to lessen the university's autonomy. But many people seem to think that financial dependence on government gives it the right to direct or run the university. Of course the government could direct its university institutions, but the idea of a government-directed university is an inherent contradiction. Whereas financial dependence on government and university autonomy can be compatible, and in Australia have long been so, loss of autonomy for whatever reasons is utterly incompatible with the idea of the real university.

The present cutbacks in university expenditures must not be allowed to spill over into government control of the remaining resources available to universities.

World standards. A real university strives to perform its basic functions of research and teaching in accordance with the highest standards in the world of intellectual and scholastic excellence. Nowhere are these laid down for any academic discipline. Nonetheless they are real and their existence acknowledged by scholars throughout the world. Loyalty to these standards in the discovery of new knowledge and in the dissemination of knowledge requires academic freedom which in itself can exist in institutions which are truly autonomous. To constrain a university to local standards is to denature it.

It is in the striving to reach and advance the highest possible academic standards that constrain universities to their preferred concern for what is intellectually demanding rather than for intellectual trivialities. Study to design a better mousetrap or to find a formula for a better hair oil, or courses on canoeing or travel and tourism or athletics and sports have no place in real universities though such activities do exist in some degree-giving institutions.

It is through publication of staff and student research in independently refereed journals and external examination of theses for higher degrees that enable universities to be, and ensure that they are, in touch with world standards of excellence. There is no higher standard, nor any better standard. This is not to claim that all university work is worthwhile. It is not. But there is no way of knowing unless and until it is published.

In summary, the essence of the real university is in the comprehensiveness of its combined functions - research, teaching and community service - their balance integration, and interaction, all pursued in a context of academic freedom guarantied by autonomy, and all performed in accordance with the demands of world standards of excellence.

Reasons for universities

Fulfillment of the functions of universities requires facilities: staff, libraries and laboratories - all to world standards. Nations invest in costly facilities for intellectual developments simply and basically because they believe that a requirement for their own betterment is that some of their population go through the experience provided in a real university.

The real university experience is in the attempts at the highest possible intellectual level:

To learn to know some part of nature and of society, and to know oneself.
To learn clear expression, intellectual honesty and the scientific method.
To develop creative and innovative intellectual capacities.
To develop the capacity for wise judgement.1

The primary experience provided by the real university is the development of the mind and acquisition of intellectual skills in the context of values that are compatible with humanity and civilisation. The vehicle of this university experience is its various subject matters - the disciplines of various courses. Thus, and because of the real university's commitment to the highest possible standards of scholarship, the secondary and second-ranking though important pay-off from the real university is from the learning to depth in various subjects which are valuable to society for its cultural, political and economic progress. Many persons, especially students think that this second-ranking pay-off is the real university's raison d'etre. It is not. Content and subject matter are necessary and important, but they are the medium not the message. Many persons see a university's greatness in the size of its laboratories and equipment. It is not. Laboratories and equipment are necessary, but they too are the medium not the message.

The basic reason for society having universities - real rather than pseudo - is subverted when they lose comprehensiveness and lose balance between courses specifically orientated towards the professions and courses in the humanities and liberal arts, when they lose balance within courses, for example knowledge merely for its own sake, and when the university succumbs to local community pressures for relevance and practicality.

For direct relevance and immediate practicality society should look to its technical, teacher-training, and advanced education colleges not to its universities. The operational skills and operational responsibilities of society are for businesses and governments, not for the real university though it is concerned to know how society uses the findings and teachings from within the university world.

Society believes that it needs the kind of person who can be developed if not created from within universities which are the only institution society has for the highest intellectual development of students aided by staff appointed for their capacity to advance their subject and their ideas and values in the world. The real university has no brief to fit students into occupational niches in society. The real university exists to provide opportunities for staff and students to develop their capacities and judgements to reveal to society, and after graduation to realise for society, yet a little more of its own potential for civilised living. Therein lies its capacity for greatness.

Thus, the real university is not primarily a vocational institution as the colleges of advanced education were set up to be, though the real university is the only educational resource for many key occupations, and education for many professions is a university by-product. A related notion too is that the real university experience is more career orientated than job orientated, a point appreciated by some employers and seemingly not understood at all by many others.

Community service

In the real university there is concern for the use of knowledge in the community although the real university does not itself apply knowledge. The application of knowledge is the function of business and other institutions and of people in their daily lives.

The university concern for use of knowledge is reflected in the large number of staff who are members of their professional associations. Such membership is a formal opportunity for an informal two-way feedback of knowledge and ideas from universities to practitioners in the community, and from practitioners to university staff. Thus there exists numerous mutual service links between university and community.

Participation of university staff in seminar and workshop programs, many of which are open to the public and organised by professional societies are another form of community service. Also in most real universities there is an extension service or continuing education service offering a wide range of staff-subject contacts to the public. And there are open-days and various ceremonies, and the university is as an ever-ready source of informed, independent, non-political and most specialised advice to governments, business and citizens. Yet another community service is as the major source of informed, independent and critical comment on social, scientific, economic and political affairs - protecting society's minority groups, and protecting society itself from undue bias.

However, the major service to the community provided by the real university is in the preservation of its integrity as a real university. This is not as simple and easy as it may sound. The temptations to slip down to the standards and conditions of a pseudo-university are many and enticing.

There is no better way a university can serve its community than by becoming a great university and by its staff and graduates perhaps with the help of convocation sensitising the public to the idea of the real university and its functions and purpose. Community awareness and appreciation of the real university is best generated by staff and student contact with the community, and is probably worst generated by university public relation exercises.


The role of the real student is to learn. The real university provides the learning facilities and learning opportunities: staff, libraries and laboratories.

The unreal student expects to be taught and the pseudo-university is dominated by a teaching ethos rather than by a study ethos. The unreal student and the pseudo-university are three disasters - one each for themselves and both for the community.

Study is long, hard, lonely work no matter what businessmen may think. Students who coast through courses are either cheating on themselves or are being cheated by the staff. Unless students are being pushed towards, and are required to push themselves towards the highest academic standards they are not in a real university course.

Whereas many persons seem to think that a 30 to 60 percent student drop-out rate from first enrolment to first degree is university failure and academic waste, in fact it is not. The real university will deliberately enrol more students than are likely to achieve its scholastic standards. The reason is that there is no way of knowing for certain the scholastic level which any particular person could achieve until he has tried. To abolish the so-called wastage would either require dropping standards which runs counter to the idea of the real university, or further restricting first enrolments thereby reducing the number of students who would like to have a go. Besides, failure to reach the universities' required level of scholarship is merely one of the many reasons why students leave universities before graduating.

Whether for the students in a real university "deliberate efforts" should be made "to assist students towards an integration of their personal concerns with intellectual concerns", and to "motivate students" is questionable, though some people have a more positive view.2

Whereas many students do understand that their role in the real university is to study, and soon come to realise what study is and how to do it, there are some who seem to think that they are being oppressed if they are not closely involved in running the university and in determining whether and how students' performances should be assessed.

Student should not have the time to be concerned about the management of a real university. Besides, for the management of a real university students are inherently inexperienced, transient, and without the required maturity of judgement. Although most committees in the real university have some student members, their greatest contribution on such committees is affirmation of inevitable student ignorance about university affairs, not student wisdom. Such affirmation is useful in providing part of the context in which committee recommendations and decisions should be made.

Academic staff

In the real university at least the senior if not all academic staff positions are advertised world wide, and the selection and appointment procedures are deliberate and meticulous. Generally it is the most outstanding applicant who is appointed though often an appointment is not made from first call and the position may be re-specified before being re-advertised.

As with the selection of students so with the appointment of staff, mistakes both of inclusion and exclusion are sometimes made. However, the procedures of staff selection are usually most rigorous, as they have to be if the real university is to continue as a real university.

University academic staff are seen by others to be privileged: they have academic freedom, they choose their own research, they do not have to punch a time clock, their pay is good, they are in an occupation with high social status, they have tenure, and study leave, and many of them work in a democratically run department.

In a real university study leave is a duty and responsibility for all staff, not a privilege. Its provision is a necessary requirement for maintaining world quality standards of the staff facility available to students.

Academic salaries can never be justified on an industrial work-value basis. The justification for their level is their adequacy to recruit and hold staff of the quality required in a real university. In comparison with academic salaries in the U.S.A., with salaries in CSIRO, and the Commonwealth and State government departments and in business corporations, university salaries in Australia are not high enough though of course they are far higher than the Australian community's average earnings.

Academic staff tenure seems to be resented by people who do not have for themselves, and its is resented by some people in authority who have for themselves but see tenure for others a restriction on their power. Economic security is a necessary requirement for academic freedom and for intensely sustained scholarly effort. The constant fear of loss of job in an unemployment society is a negative motivating influence far less productive than positive motivating influences for good work performance whether blue collar, white collar or academic.

A common student gripe about staff is that they cannot teach and are more interested in research than in students and teaching. Whereas staff often tend to over-emphasise the complementarity between their research and teaching, these two activities in the same person inevitably conflict. However, that good teaching can be taught and ought to be taught to university staff is a sacred cow of most trained teachers and educational bureaucrats with vested interests in teacher training colleges, and of student guilds and unions.

In the real university teaching is guiding and helping student learning, not school-teacher teaching. Lectures are not really a teaching method so much as guidance. Essay writing, laboratory assignments and preparation for and participation in tutorials are the main learning processes.

Study and learning is essentially a lonely activity requiring staff guidance, staff help over individual subject problem difficulties, and discussion with fellow students and staff. In the real university the lecture is a useful learning aid but in the pseudo-university talk-and-chalk is all important for in such institutions rote-learning is good enough. In the real university rote-learning rarely gets the student beyond his first academic year.

In the real university academic staff are conscious of their responsibility to maintain the integrity of the university. This implies appreciation of the idea of the real university and loyalty to its values. This implies too that in the real university the internal structures of government and administration, and the way they operate generate loyalty in senate, staff, students and administration to each other, and generate loyalty in all to what the real university stands for, thereby pushing the real university towards greatness.

University government and administration

Within the real university the ethos and structures of its government and administration have to be and are essentially democratic. The reason is that in the real university the staff and research students are working in their various disciplines at the margin of what is believed to be known and what is yet unknown. They are working in zones of doubt where the certainty of authoritarianism and bureaucracy has no place. Such people are sensitive to authoritarianism in any form and do not take kindly to it, yet of course such people have to agree and to cooperate. But the only lasting and positive basis for their agreement and cooperation is when decisions are made in the university and its departments through structures which are democratic.

In universities as elsewhere there are people with authoritarian personalities who like to dictate and hand out patronage. Such people are readily identifiable always arguing to get their way from some simplistic point of view - efficiency, urgency, economy, necessity, and practicality.

In the real university the government and administration is democratic throughout, and is seen to be so. One way of telling is whether deans, professors, heads of departments, chairmen and vice-chancellors see themselves, and are seen by other staff, to be first among equals or first above lesser men.

Dangers to universities

The world is full of dangers for the real university. Already mentioned are the politicians and educational bureaucrats whose own empire-building would end university autonomy and with that reduce real universities to pseudo-universities. But within the real university too there is danger from those staff and students who have not accepted in full the responsibilities of their respective roles. Such persons bring universities into disrepute as those university graduates, in the community in positions of power over lay clients and workers, whose attitude to non-university qualified people is arrogant and intolerant.

Another danger to universities are mis-guided and wrong-headed expectations from within and without about the role and purpose of the real university in the community. The real university is not and cannot be the saviour of man. It cannot make men and women perfect. It does not and cannot give leadership to the community. It does not have, should not and cannot have a university viewpoint on society's affairs, though it does have a clearly perceived view about itself as a university and about the idea of a real university, and the great university.

Another associated danger is ignorance in the community about the purpose and the nature of the real university. The purpose is not to fit students into society. Academic work is hard exacting work. Technical and economic progress of society are possible without a university, but the advance of culture, humanity, and civilisation is probably not.

A danger to the real university is the temptation to generate expectations in the community which cannot be fulfilled: the promise to solve a particular problem for a research grant to the university. This is not the same as the university seeking funds, or accepting offers of funds to research into particular problems.

A danger to universities is for them to substitute the ethos of business for that of the real university. Businessmen as such are about as likely to be able to run a university, and are about as appropriate a source of inspiration for a university as are university professors for business. Besides, business and university are inherently different. The real university has a far more distant time horizon than most businesses, and unlike businesses it has loyalties to mankind, not only to customers and to persons with incomes to spend. Also there is nothing in the real university matching the business world generally for its stimulation of the community's materialistic desires, for its pandering through persuasive advertising to baser personal instincts, for its planned obsolescence and waste, for its emphasis on monetary gain, and for environmental damage and destruction.

Another danger to the real university is the threat to its democratic structures and operations by internal authoritarianism. Scholars cannot be authoritized. Attempts to do so will cause them to leave, reduce their productivity, and shrivel their creativity.

The most recent danger to universities is the growing belief currently enforced by government action that the economy cannot afford the universities it has set up. The fact is that never has the difference between the Australian population's total expenditure and its expenditure on basic needs been greater than during the 1970s. From this difference the expenditures over and above those for basic needs are made, with less going to universities by deliberate decision because society apparently wants less, not because it cannot afford more.

1. J.A. Perkins (1965) "The University in Transition", Princeton University Press.
2. G. Little (1970) "The University Experience", Melbourne University Press.

Abridged by Clem Kuek