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4. Universities

The monopoly that universities may once have enjoyed as sites of privileged access to knowledge resources is being lost as digital developments make it possible for ordinary citizens to find, make and share knowledge in open and networked systems, mediated by technology platforms

Published onMar 08, 2019
4. Universities

4.1 Universities As Open Knowledge Institutions

The modern research university, dating from the German technical education and research system of the 19th century, was built to be open to the world, to pull knowledge in and to push knowledge out. It was a product of the liberal Enlightenment and the 'invisible college' (Mokyr, 2017) that spanned Europe and gave us the modern conception of an 'open society' of knowledge (Popper, 1945).

An ideology of openness was pervasive in these early institutions. At the founding of Johns Hopkins University Press in 1878, for example, Daniel Colt Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins University, stated:

It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend daily lectures – but far and wide.

In the simplest terms, this provides the ideal of the modern research university as being dedicated to the production and dissemination of knowledge to the public. These values are echoed in mission statements and strategic plans across the world: the university envisions itself as a space in which knowledge is produced, often in collaboration with other partners, and its results should have significance for the broader community. The University of Cambridge (2018), for example, states as a core value the relationship with society, making clear that the university should have the widest possible access by members of the public and engage innovative partnerships with other knowledge institutions.

Several historical processes have endowed modern universities with a privileged space in the knowledge economy. Academic scholars have been ascribed certain virtues that are often not attached to knowledge-makers in other industries (Shapin, 2008). Their peculiar system of self-government, including peer review and disciplinisation, has often been used as a protection against outside influence. Furthermore, universities in the aggregate engage with a large proportion of the population, more than has participated in any single industry. This provides a sense of loyalty to and defence of the academy that may not be observed for other industries.

However, the monopoly that universities may once have enjoyed as sites of privileged access to knowledge resources is being lost as digital developments make it possible for ordinary citizens to find, make and share knowledge in open and networked systems, mediated by technology platforms and companies (Google, Facebook, YouTube, Baidu, Tencent), rather than by experts. The growth of knowledge has been coupled with faster rates of change in all aspects of life, including accelerating technological change.

In response to these pressures, as well as to increased scrutiny and accountability measures, the modern university is driven to become an increasingly closed institution, which allows it to operate more efficiently to meet short-term goals set by funders, regulators and the market. However, this makes universities poorly suited to the realities of accelerating change and poorly positioned to engage with new opportunities. Most important, this shift means that universities are failing in their basic mission: to serve as open institutions capable of providing the knowledge and innovations needed by a world in which change and uncertainty are inescapable realities.

Closed systems are a dominant equilibrium. But to cope with change, all systems, including societies and economies, need to be open in order to benefit from experimentation. Open systems work because they are resilient and capable of coping with uncertainty and accelerated change. If universities are to survive and prosper they need to shift away from operating as closed centres of knowledge production and become open knowledge institutions. In an uncertain world, systems must accept a share of 'inefficiency' (variability) in order to maximise robustness. An Open Knowledge Institution can more productively respond to technological disruption, rapid global change, and dynamic competitive pressures. Given these attributes, an Open Knowledge Institution is not only an optimal strategy but a contemporary necessity.

Openness is both a strategy for prospering in the context of uncertainty and change and also a principled ethical position: a humanistic liberal quality, emphasising social inclusiveness, minimising tendencies towards the centralisation of power and the unfair distribution of knowledge resources. In a world in which moral leadership and trust in institutions are in short supply, openness provides an ethical position from which universities can speak: as honest brokers, interested in the power of knowledge to create positive change in the lives of the many, not the few. Openness recognises the connection that exists between universities and the local, national and global communities that these institutions depend on and in turn affect. Open stances position universities as hubs within larger networks of knowledge creation, sharing, use and growth.

Supporting and encouraging diverse strategies for sharing the knowledge being created within universities is a powerful strategy for ensuring that universities engage with changes happening beyond the institution. Feedback mechanisms, which allow universities to understand how and where they can add value to networked knowledge environments, at both global and local levels and in both commercial and community contexts, are vital if universities are successfully to navigate the complex changes now occurring in the landscapes in which they must operate. As incumbent and emergent institutions with a great deal of public trust, universities can act as innovative partners, sometimes leaders, in an open knowledge society. Adhering to open knowledge practices would allow universities to build upon the infrastructure that they already have in the service of their communities of influence and the broader public.

At their core, Open Knowledge Institutions act as networks of knowledge, spanning common disciplinary boundaries and campus barriers in order to serve as agents for societal change. These institutions operate via a set of protocols and are governed by commonly understood rules and procedures. These rules and procedures are neither fixed nor hierarchal; they are expected to morph and change over time; they do not serve to regulate knowledge in a market-driven way. They are oriented towards co-production of knowledge with and for broader communities. In an open system, evaluation criteria must expand from isolated notions of excellence to metrics that include notions of innovation, utility and engagement under uncertainty. Open knowledge institutions of higher learning foreground and prioritise the constituent communities that their students, alumni, faculty, staff, administrators, partners and collaborators both comprise and promote.

In this environment, the concept of excellence no longer relies on particular publication brands (e.g., high ranking journals or presses). Instead, the value of scholarship is tied to the difference it is able to make in a life, a community, a nation or the world. Advancement occurs as a reward for connectedness and usefulness, not for elite recognition. Furthermore, open knowledge institutions do not operate in isolation or in competition with other institutions, but work cooperatively to create a robust common pool resource and shared infrastructure.

It is perhaps useful to distinguish the notion of an Open Knowledge Institution from the contemporary parlance of 'Open Universities', namely institutions that do not impose limitations on entry (examples of which can be seen in the UK's OU and Australia's OUA). Such institutions developed around principles of open access to enrolment. Most are not experimental offshoots of existing higher education establishments, but rather are philosophically-driven newcomers created and designed to provide educational opportunities and degrees to anyone who can afford to participate. Though they share some characteristics with Open Knowledge Institutions, particularly in their support of a diverse student population, Open Universities do not typically encompass the full spectrum of criteria that are imagined in the case of an Open Knowledge Institution, because they confine openness to the student demographic and not to systemic knowledge-making and sharing.

4.2 Maintaining Open Knowledge Institutions

Open Knowledge Institutions, such as universities, create new values for the society at large through coordinating networks and platforms for knowledge-making activities, where the network itself is a common pool resource. Universities provide individuals and groups with access to a broader network, as well as to the reputational resources and honest broker status of the larger institution. Whereas different communities interact within the university to create their common pool resources, this interaction, in turn, needs to be coordinated and sustained to share the common good (for example, departments compete against each other for funding and influence, which may create harmful externalities). Hence, the network of interaction emerges as a higher-level common pool resource.

If we look at the history of the university system globally, the emergence of the university as a broker and governance structure is a hallmark of the US model. In comparison, the traditional German university, now following the track of the US model in recent reforms, was institutionally weak vis à visthe faculties which were organised as collectives of autonomous chairs. Recent reforms clearly strengthened the role of the university as a coordinating, mediating and enabling institution. However, critics of the US model point to aspects which relate to its economisation and closure, such as the concentration on rankings and market-oriented design of programs. In the US model, principles of closure and openness stay in tension.

Understood in this way, open knowledge as an organising framework is a strategy and alignment that protects the common knowledge pool resources of the university in the context of change and uncertainty. Successful management of common pool resources depends on coordination and governance mechanisms: community norms, protocols of acceptable behaviour and a shared purpose and vision. In this sense, the university is the institutional embodiment of the public interest in creating and sustaining common knowledge pools.

However, Open Knowledge Institutions face challenges to their economic and social sustainability. The unique capability of Open Knowledge Institutions in creating knowledge for public interests needs to be recognised and supported at policy levels and translated into public funding for its long-term sustainability. Thus, advocating for policy changes should be a permanent mission, not a one-off distraction, for Open Knowledge Institutions.

Meanwhile, as knowledge is an economic good, the knowledge object yields positive outcomes (as determined amongst producers and users) that are measurable or demonstrable. Thus, open business models are possible – and needed – for Open Knowledge Institutions to increase their economic sustainability. This is not just about generating revenues from open-licensed content, but also, more important, about integrating open knowledge practices with broader digital culture, economics and innovation, thereby creating new value propositions.

As Open Knowledge Institutions, universities must build trust and incentive/reward mechanisms for participants from academia, industries, and general publics. This includes the development of innovative quality control methods, ranging from open peer review to altmetrics, building public trust in knowledge that is created in an open paradigm. It is also necessary to motivate both individual academics and citizens to participate in open knowledge practices and to develop practical rewards for them, particularly in institutional contexts, and based on connected communities with shared interests.       

Further, Open Knowledge Institutions have both the capability and the responsibility to advocate in favour of profound policy changes through analysis of good practices and evidence-based research. These policy changes include funding and evaluation issues that have been widely discussed. They will free academics from the restrictions of ‘publish or perish’, but also avoid creating new open maxims such as ‘be visible or vanish’. However, rather than building tech-utopian open knowledge initiatives, universities are uniquely positioned to lead open transformations in a practical and sustainable way, using symbolic resources (branding/reputation), economic resources (public/private funding), and human resources (experts/students/communities) resources. In summary, open knowledge policy innovations should endeavour to build a more diverse, inclusive, experimental and failure-tolerant system and culture.

4.3 Opting for Openness?

Universities have ubiquitous opportunities for future development. Many will build incrementally upon past successes and the development of well-tried values and priorities. For an increasing number, however, path-dependence is not enough. Discontinuities or U-turns may be necessary for survival; new roles or community positionings may be essential. Many universities have, in fact, already moved towards a more open knowledge function within their communities – as 'part of the world' rather than a more monastic or intramural role, 'apart from the world'.

Clearly, a university cannot, by itself, become a successful Open Knowledge Institution. It takes at least two to tango. A new institutional openness in resource availability, tying in with a greater openness in the way it runs its education or research business, depends on how a university’s communities, networks and affiliations also embrace the open-knowledge opportunity. That is, how these partners seek to be involved in an Open Knowledge Institution’s new role and new knowledge emphasis. The activities of others, such as local government, religious bodies, dominant philanthropic families and so on, can effectively usurp many of the services an open-knowledge university might seek to provide.  The closedness of certain professions or disciplines, or a prevailing 'keyholder' approach to knowledge access, can equally thwart an institution trying to forge a new knowledge compact with its communities. On the other hand, as a key thought leader, a university has an obligation to foster change and to confront any defensively restricted approach.

The theme of this book is that universities are highly suitable as Open Knowledge Institutions because of their liberal values, core knowledge mission and cornerstone role in their communities. But this does not mean all universities can or will prioritise an open-knowledge role: a defence-related or religious university may have fundamental difficulties with such a role. Nor does it mean that all universities must prioritise strong community relations. Some will, indeed, thrive on being 'apart from the world', or they will look for their 'community' far from their physical location. For most comprehensive, not-for-profit universities, however, the development of an open knowledge agenda needs serious consideration. Like free trade, open knowledge is good for the system in total even when it may not always be good for any one player.

Figure 3. The university as Open Knowledge Institution

This diagram summarises the functions that different elements of an OKI have, building on the conceptual framework developed in this chapter. The key point is that the university interacts with various and diverse external actors in creating common knowledge pools. In this interaction, the university plays the essential role of creating and sustaining a number of common pool resources that enable the actors involved. Common pool resources are created by members of the university, such as its reputation, and their sustainability builds on protocols, values and norms that are constitutive for the university as an organisation. Common knowledge pools are various but may overlap, such as including users in research cooperation with other universities as well. The entire pattern of interaction, as outlined in the figure above, is the result of the institutionalisation of an open knowledge system: the OKI.

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