Neo-Humboldtian university – a model of 21st century university


The future of universities is becoming a central issue in the global competition. Universities have been and are the major source of new technologies from electricity to nuclear power and from information technology to biotech. Universities are also a birthplace of many innovations and start-ups (Kaku 2012). The impact of the universities on economic growth has proved to be remarkable (Helpman 2004). Elizabeth Berman (2012) argues that this development has resulted in a conceptualization of universities as “economic engines”.

In the climate of global competition it is too easy to accept the economic engine model of university.  The model implies the opinion that by enforcing universities to adopt this kind of economic identity they will flourish. But this opinion is dangerously wrong!


Market logic started to dominate science logic

The concept of university as economic engine implies the dominance of market logic in the development of universities. Market logic is a set of principles that steers universities to maximize the economic value of research and education, and emphasis the impact of universities on economic growth. Market logic is further expressed in the concept of entrepreneurial university (Thorp & Goldstein 2010).

What is problematic in this position is that market logic contradicts with science logic. Science logic means the set of principles, which encourage universities to operate according to “traditional” principles of curiosity, freedom of research and internal objectives.  The science logic aims at getting the greatest results of science and benefitting the society via them. On the hand the mark logic is looking for quick measurable results. The paradox of market logic is that it destroys the basis of economic impact for which market logic is just pursuing, because economic impact of science is the result of longstanding previous research.

Berman shows in her book “Creating the Market University” how the concept of university as economic engine emerged in the USA in the 1970’s with the breakthrough of biotechnology (e.g. recombinant-DNA) and later patenting legislation (Bayh-Dole Act) and building of university-industry research institutions (see also Geiger 2004). Similar development has taken place in all industrial countries, Finland included, based on proposals of the OECD (Niinikoski 2011).

The development towards the market logic has been complex. In fact, the science logic holds a very strong position among both leading scholars and majority of faculties. Researchers follow the science logic despite the university leaders and governments stressing the need to “serve society” and produce innovations.  However, when “money talks”, market logic overruns science logic. The result can be found in the increasing number of innovation oriented research programs funded by governments and industries (e.g. bio-, nano-, and energy technologies). Regardless of discipline, it is much more difficult to get funding for basic research.


Neo-Humboldtian University as an alternative to entrepreuneurial university

To develop the university system and to enhance fundamental scientific research, a grounded concept for science and universities is needed. In a recent book “The contradictory science policy” written by Pirjo Ståhle and myself we have proposed an idea of Neo-Humboldtian University. It is based on principles of “Humboldtian” university laid down in the establishment of Humboldt University in Berlin 1810. The principles include:

  1. Academic freedom and autonomy of universities
  2. The pursuit of knowledge as a base for culture, civilization and education (German “Bildung”)
  3. The unity of teaching and research


The German word “Bildung” is difficult to translate into English, but it refers to educating people in terms of humanism, values and social responsibility. The slogan “Bildung durch Wissenschaft” (“education through learning and research”) expresses the idea that science will educate young generation to understand both the world and their duties in it. One remarkable notion is that that in the Humboldtian University all sciences are equally important for “Bildung”: a leading principle of the university was the integration of the natural, social sciences and humanities as Wilhelm von Humboldt suggested (

What is the meaning of neo in the Neo-Humboldtian University? The traditional approach of the Humboldt University concentrated on the pursuit of truth without paying attention to societal and economic issues and challenges. Of course, the societal needs were recognized, but intrinsic scientific problems were the major concern of research. Therefore the problems of the “real world” could not be found in the research community.

What is the alternative for the university if the extremes of pure truth and innovation are to be avoided? We propose that taking wicked problems as organizing principle in universities is the right approach. By wicked problems we refer to the great challenges of contemporary world such as climate change, health and food issues, education, urbanization, polarization and security.

In the Neo-Humboldtian university teaching, research and solving wicked problems form a coherent unity – a triple task.  This implies many changes in the practices of university (see also Gibbons & al. 1996, Geiger 2004, Nielsen 2012):

  • More interdisciplinary research
  • More open and transparent science
  • Close collaboration with different stakeholders outside universities
  • Larger scale of problems worth solving

Next step towards the Neo-Humboldtian University

The concept of Neo-Humboldtian University suits well to all disciplines and faculties. In addition, aiming for solving the wicked problems is natural to academia, because scholars are often concious and well-informed about the future of mankind and planetary problems. The Neo-Humboldtian University provides excellent conditions for integration of fundamental research and social responsibility.

The most difficult part of the university reform of the this century is funding policies.  The actual funding schemas of research are based on either excellence in a certain field of study or usefulness to innovation. Excellence in a one field of study requires continuing publication of articles in high impact journals. This kind of concentration to publishing limits the freedom of research into narrow scientific interests and weakens motivation towards interdisciplinary collaboration. On the other hand, usefulness to innovation is measured by patenting and licensing or by potential benefits to industry. Although this has some impact on economic growth, it binds the talents and other resources to projects that cannot fully support the development of science or solving wicked problems. We also know that the revenue of patenting to universities has actually been only moderate (Geiger 2004, Berman 2012).

I am not saying that the needs of industry are irrelevant for universities. But the right way to meet these needs is not by application-oriented and often short-ranged research. Instead, a strong scientific research aiming at solving the wicked problems is the accurate way. The problem solving is a co-creational process where researchers, public organizations, NGO’s and firms are collaborating while maintaining their own profiles and interests. Universities provide their deep knowledge about the topics, whereas industry and enterprises provide their huge experience in implementing inventions and making them technologically feasible and economically viable.

To develop a university of the 21th century, a full body of science policy is necessary. Science policy must be an autonomous field of policy, which is neither subordinate to innovation or industry policies nor only to education policies. The core issue in science policy must be a new funding schema based on encouraging interdisciplinary studies and collaboration in solving wicked problems.

I thank Ph.D Kaisa Oksanen (Agora Center) for many discussions about the topic and useful comments on the book and blog. I thank Academy of Finland for the financial support to write the book.


Hautamäki A. & Ståhle P. (2012): Ristiriitainen tiedepolitiikkamme, Suuntana innovaatiot vai sivistys? [The contradictory science policy. Towards innovation or civilization?]. Helsinki: Gaudeamus. The book contains also sort contributions by Ilkka Arminen, Riitta Hari, Sanna Lauslahti, Tarmo Lemola, Markku Mattila, Arto Mustajoki, Kaisa Oksannen and Saara Taalas.

Berman E.P. (2012). Creating the Market University, How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Geiger R. L. (2004). Knowledge and Money, Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Gibbons M. & al. (1996). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. Sage.

Helpman E. (2004). The Mystery of Economic Growth. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Kaku M. (2012). Physics of the Future. How science will shape human destinity and our daily lives by the year 2100. New York; Anchor Books.

Nielsen M. (2012). Reinventing Discovery, The New Era of Networked Science.  Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Niinikoski M-L. (2011). Innovation: Formation of a Policy Field and a Policy-making Practice. Aalto Yliopisto – Doctoral Dissertations 40/2011.

Thorp H. & Goldstein B. (2010). Engines of Innovation, The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century. Chappel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.