The Role of Universities in Modern Societies


According to President Per Holten-Andersen, CBS' role in the present and future Danish society should be as a business university in the framework of a modern Scandinavian democracy and welfare state.


The institutions we know today as ´universities´ were established back in the European Middle Ages, and they have played a significant role in societal development for at least 500 years. The term ‘university’ originates from the Latin word ‘universitas’: simply meaning ‘a whole’, thereby signifying that the role of universities is to pursue balanced knowledge about virtually everything. Since the expansion of (natural and technical) sciences starting in the 19th century, the role of furthering economic and societal development has become an additional, and increasingly important, function of universities in our modern day societies.
In the welfare state anno 2015, it is the opinion of many that this additional role of universities is becoming not just important but should be ‘primus-inter-pares’ in relation to original academic purpose of furthering knowledge about ‘the whole’.
In more prosaic terms, one may define five activities as being the prime goals of our universities. Numbers 1-4 are linked to the classical ‘universitas’ role. The fifth and additional role is one that modern societies increasingly require universities to undertake also:

  1. Repository of the Knowledge of Mankind: universities must act as ‘knowledge vaults’, maintaining and securing crucial knowledge for present and future generations 
  2. Generation of new Knowledge: to undertake the activity that we call research
  3. Transferring Knowledge to the Next Generation, i.e. what we call education
  4. Transferring Knowledge to Society, i.e. what we call dissemination
  5. Generating economic development: to play an integral role in furthering economic growth and thereby pursuing socio-economic goals.

Over the past century, and especially over the last decades, increasing importance has - in my view rightfully - been attributed to this fifth goal. However, we should not allow this to crowd out the centuries-old core idea of the role of universities (goals 1-4). We should rather add the crucial driver of economic development to the accepted role of universities: this is about augmenting the role and purpose of universities, not losing sight of what universities are for. The purpose is exactly to allow a higher economic freedom for our modern day societies. A strong economy simply grants a country and society the freedom to operate and determine its own future and destiny. In the writing of the history of successful nations of the past, all have been linked to charismatic leaders, strong ideas, conquests of territory and of knowledge, but above all, they have been characterised by the strength of their economies. The long-term weakening of the economy of an entity has always spelt the ‘beginning-of-the-end’ of a successful culture, of a successful nation.

However, in our recognition of the demand for direct contribution of universities to economic development, we should not underestimate the short- and long-term societal value of ‘general knowledge and learnedness’, i.e. the classical and long-established role of universities. On the contrary, these classical virtues of the university and the university graduate also have strong and long-term economic impacts on our societies in the form of increased trust, transparency, cohesion, robustness for and ability to handle change. Further, there is a strong case for arguing that the long term viability and stability of our democracies are crucially dependent on the maintenance and development of the educational level of our population, i.e. on the individual’s ability to draw independent and enlightened conclusions and form independent and enlightened opinions. Incidents in recent weeks in Europe make us all realise the massive personal, social, but also economic costs of the erosion of social cohesion, and the obvious benefits to society of a higher general level of education.

CBS was founded almost a hundred years ago (1917) in the aftermath of the economically most devastating century in the past 500 years history of the Danish nation. The need at the time was an immediate focus on business. Business understood as local commercialisation, trade and exports. Later CBS has added the important role of being part of the drive for commercial globalisation and internationalisation of Danish businesses.

At CBS we may therefore ask ourselves a very specific question: What shall be the role of CBS in the present day and future Danish Society? It is my view that the desired role of a business school in the framework of a modern Scandinavian democracy and welfare state shall best be delivered by exactly the ‘Business University’ profile that the CBS ‘Business in Society’ strategy signifies. Driven by the ‘business’ component in our brand name, we must deliver the knowledge and tools of basic economics and business, but exactly in the broader context of a modern day society and welfare state.

The inherent strengths of the Danish societal model that so many of us support, value and cherish are based on building wealthy, healthy, long-term, coherent, stable and adaptable societies with trust, transparency, honesty, legality, and long-term quality-of-life. And we must develop a healthy and sustainable economy, founded on just these values. These are the characteristics on which we shall continuously build our society and secure its ability to handle - no - even thrive among the opportunities and challenges of globalisation.

This is why the role of CBS in our modern day society is to be the broad ‘Business University’. And this is why this shall continue to be a cornerstone of the academic profile of CBS.


The page was last edited by: Communications // 07/31/2018