Universities have proliferated so much in recent years that you can find them most anywhere in the major centres of the world. In the words of James Derounian, writing in the UK highered policy magazine Wonkhe, they are “physically, socially, culturally economically and environmentally very present within cities, towns and neighbourhoods”.

Derounian references the ‘civic curriculum’ in which students are educated in a process that hopefully provides “learning, skills acquisition with practical benefits for society …”:

“Civic engagement can also support the transition from university into work, through engendering student team work, problem solving, timekeeping, personal organisation, and work with agencies and individuals in the immediate locality. That, in turn, can lead to students gaining confidence, multiplying their knowledge & capabilities, and priming them as agents of change.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another comes from Professor Ellen Hazelkorn in a blistering speech (reported in University World News) in which she asserts that universities and their faculty “have become global actors constructing and extending their own sphere of influence in a competitive, hierarchically differentiated status system”.

Hazelkorn’s view essentially is that the now numerous rankings systems have distorted the role and purpose of the university.

“Whereas historically the state provided for the needs of universities, today the university provides for the needs of the state. Rankings have played a significant role in reframing these relationships.”

Further, nations compete based on their knowledge and innovation systems, with higher education playing a key role “as it is transformed from being a predominantly social institution with a local or sub-national remit to being the cornerstone of economic policy with geopolitical responsibilities”.

Hazelkorn says that because universities and the state both benefit from the competition for talent and knowledge production, higher education is integral to national and global power relations:

“While competition has accelerated between nations and their universities for a greater share of the global marketplace, pursuance of ‘world-class’ status has become a shared strategy of trans-nationalising elites. Transnational networks form a necessary function in strengthening position within the global knowledge value chain.”

Hazelkorn says that as global competition accelerates and “the reputation arms-race heats up”, it is evident “that no government can or will be able to afford all the higher education its citizens demand or society requires”:

“It is also fair to say that too much is made of the tensions between state governance and institutional autonomy – and that higher education needs to (re)affirm its commitment to the public good in a way that goes beyond making a simple correlation between what it does (teach and research) and societal benefit.”

She asserts that higher education, in particular elite universities, along with their students and staff, have “benefited despite all the controversies around education as an internationally-traded service”.

“The demand for evidence of contribution and impact is arguably a response to its own claims that higher education is a driver of the economy – the government and public have simply called their bluff.”

Hazelkorn contends that while higher education historically has had a close relation with the city and country of its founding, today, its institutions are “considered part of the elite”.

She says that while societal problems are not the sole result nor responsibility of higher education, “higher education’s hands are not clean”.

“Disturbingly, many universities have become civically disengaged. They have transformed themselves into self-serving private entities less engaged or committed to their nation/region as they eagerly pursue their world-class position and shout about the public good.”

Is Hazelkorn right? Could it not be that universities can play the rankings game – they really don’t have much choice, it seems – and serve their local communities?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that universities do bring a benefit to the cities and towns in which they are located, including medical and related facilities, regardless of their position in the various rankings.

Derounian cites the American researchers DeLind and Link who he says argue that “daily life is not a backdrop to education, but education itself … students need to carefully and critically examine what exists under their feet and outside their front (and back) doors.”

When all is said and done perhaps that’s not bad advice for all those involved in higher education?