The article defines the university as a social institution which expresses in a differentiated form the structure of society and its way of functioning. It criticises the change suffered by the Brazilian public university in recent years, defined by the reform of the State as a social organisation. It analyses the differences between social institution and organisation, exemplifying its reflexes on the public university: management contracts, evaluation for productivity, flexibility, reduced time for training, teaching as the mere transmission of knowledge, operational research. It presents and discusses the concept of knowledge society and the new conception of lifelong or continued education, basic ideas introduced by the international organisms for the modernisation of the universities. It concludes by presenting points which it considers fundamental for change in the public university, with regard to formation and democratisation: position itself against social exclusion, redefine and affirm university autonomy, restore the value of teaching as a process of formation, revalorise research, directing it by the idea of citizenship and demanding its financing with redefined public funds, and adopt a clearly critical perspective with relation to the ideas of the knowledge society and lifelong or continued education.
public university; social institution