What will universities be for?

There’s nothing like a Bank Holiday weekend to make a start on a blog article on a subject that plenty of others have written on in the past, more eloquently and better researched no doubt. I’m thinking of Cardinal Newman, and more recently Stefan Collini.

Newman said that the purpose of a University is:

“An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.”

More recently, Stefan Collini has tried to reinforce the need to answer the question “What Afe Universities For”, by looking beyond a

“public perception of universities (that) focuses too much on their teaching role”


“they have become an important medium for conserving understanding extending and handing on intellectual scientific and artistic heritage.”


“This wider perspective may help us become more aware of the limitations of treating economic growth as the overriding test of value”

However much of this post is prompted by recent publications by two other writers, Joanna Williams, of University of Kent, and Andrew McGettigan, author of The Great University Gamble.

At a time when we are preparing ourselves for an HE future that will be shaped by the outcome of this year’s General Election, when so many universities are focussing on their finances, their ability to provide the necessary “student experience”, their contribution to improving student employability, then these writers challenge us to think again about what higher education is about.

Higher education, according to all of the recent major party manifestos is expressed in terms of the financial benefit to the individual (and hence to society through increased tax revenues, and repayment of tuition fee loans). However, previous work from the the Department of Business, Industry and Science – who have been responsible for universities – has shown in “The Benefits of Higher Education Participation for Individuals and Society” that people who attend university are less likely to commit crime, drink heavily or smoke, and  are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates”. The BIS report identifies a range of market and non-market benefits and whether they relate to the individual or society.

Joanna Williams captures the rationale for celebrating higher education in a short piece for Palgrave where she says:

“The idea of the ‘student as consumer’ is derided by academics and commentators alike but it can seem as if there are few intellectually inspiring visions of higher education on offer to young people today. To celebrate higher education we need to move beyond mundane ‘skills for employability’ and to stop drawing a trivial financial equivalence between tuition fees and posh cups of coffee. Rather than focusing upon student satisfaction and the customer experience, universities need to promote the knowledge, ideas and understanding that only they can provide.”

Andrew McGettigan takes a focused look at the treasury view of HE in a new paper for PERC at Goldsmiths where he states:

The focus of policy has been the transformation of higher education into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings. Initiation  into the production and dissemination of public knowledge? It does not appear to be a concern of current policy.

He highlights that the Treasury view of higher education is based on the concept of human capital investment, where ultimately the information on salaries earned by graduates from individual subjects at universities, based on tax receipts and levels of payment of student loans will become a factor provided to allow decision to be made about where to study. Recent legislation has provided a series of measures to enable this that:

will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students.

This will provide data on the repayment rates for different subjects at different institutions, as well as the promotion of “value added” as being based purely on graduate earnings. No doubt this will then provide a new series of value judgments about universities based on metrics rooted in monetarist theory.

McGettigan questions how academics might challenge this new orthodoxy;

The risk is that academics seeking to resist this further privatisation of knowledge will be cast as vested interests seeking to protect an old, inadequate system lacking in transparency. We will end up on the wrong side of the argument. The difficulty: How to articulate what is threatened? How to defend forms of knowledge which are not subordinate to private returns? Academic freedom and autonomy now face a more pressing, insidious, financialised threat than the traditional bugbear of direct political interference. But all this may prove too abstract for effective resistance.

McGettingan cleary states that he does not have a “glib solution”, but that maybe academics (and indeed universities) could challenge the key definition of institutions as providers of

undergraduate study as a stratified, unequal, positional good dominating future opportunities and outcomes. What might find broader public support is a vision of higher education institutions that are civic and open to lifelong participation, instead of places beholden to the three-year, full-time degree leveraged on loans and aiming to cream off ‘talent’.

Although universities need to be managed and governed in such a way that they use public and private monies responsibly, from an academic perspective we need to ensure that in the drive to satisfy our neo-liberal paymasters that we don’t lose the other non-financial benefits of HE and the ability of, and indeed need for, education to be transformational, not just in terms of employability, and for the broadest range of students.

At my own institution, as we move from our new statement of strategic intent, to the development of a new University plan, we have  already said that we will challenge and support our students through “the obligation to provide programmes that stretch our students, delivered by critical thinking, pedagogically advanced, scholarship- and research-active academics”

We need to create a narrative that shows how we can transform all of our students into fully engaged members of society who are able to engage with their subjects to the level of challenging established truths, as well as being able to engage with  the broader hopes of the academy. We need to look closely at what we mean by employability, and make sure that we give our students the opportunities to develop the social capital that they need over and above subject expertise and “transferable skills”. A university that is able to stay true to the principles originally expressed by Newman, reinforced by Collini, and recognises the dangers posed by the current limited thinking driven purely by economics will be the university that enables its students to fully engage with their subjects, to be able to challenge and help create new truths and possibly even be more employable.


Stefan Collini: What are Universities for? Publisher: Penguin (2012) ISBN-13: 978-1846144820

Newman http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/discourse5.html

Andrew McGettigan “The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment” http://www.gold.ac.uk/perc/news/percpaperno6thetreasuryviewofhevariablehumancapitalinvestment.php

Joanna Williams: Celebrate Higher Education http://www.palgrave.com/page/Joanna-Williams/