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What is a University?

What is a University? main image

What is a university?” This – along with the challenges facing universities around the world – was the focus of a debate I attended earlier this week, hosted by SOAS as part of a cultural forum series at London's Tate Modern.

The debate was chaired by SOAS director Paul Webley, and featured Jo Beall, director of education and society at the British Council; Stefan Collini, professor of intellectual history and English literature at the University of Cambridge; Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi; Richard Sennett, Centennial Professor of Sociology at LSE and David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science.

During the two hours, a lot of ground was covered. But a commonly recurring theme was the importance of recognizing the vast diversity of institutions which come under the term ‘university’ – in terms of size, scope, priorities, mission and relationship to the wider public.

The elite research university

At one end of the scale, a lot of the discussion focused on very elite research universities, such as MIT and Harvard, and the conditions necessary for creating this kind of research powerhouse. Richard Sennett and Stefan Collini alike emphasized the importance of giving academics a large degree of autonomy, arguing that research which is too narrowly planned and tracked is unlikely to produce exciting or worthwhile results.

In contrast to this ‘shopkeeper’ approach to research, Sennett outlined the ‘MIT model’, which recognizes that risk, waste and failure are all essential parts of the process. “Good science works the way good art does,” he said – meaning, it’s a creative process.

Sennett also issued a warning, saying that while China (which once typified the ‘shopkeeper’ approach) is now embracing the MIT example, many other countries are now returning to ‘safer’ research structures, due to financial constraints. This, along with pressure to create publishable results quickly, does not make for the best research, Sennett warned.

Collini agreed with these points, touching on the tension between the desired academic freedom and meeting the demands of accountability, especially when public funding is involved. He also highlighted the wider importance of creating a sense of shared commitment to scholarly enquiry within the university community – and further suggested academics should return to a more active role in running universities, rather than leaving this to professional managers and administrators.

Finally, Collini stressed the need for universities to step up their ability to communicate their less immediately tangible goals and aspirations to the wider public – to promote understanding of the importance of investing in longer term research projects, as well as more immediate goals such as training students to fill professional functions needed by society.

Universities on a mass scale

At the same time, the panellists acknowledged the importance of this last role of universities - in producing graduates in every field from teaching to engineering. In particular, discussion focused on meeting the challenge of fulfilling this kind of function in countries where demand for university education is growing rapidly.

David Willetts argued that there’s a need for a more mass-provision approach, capable of delivering higher education on the large scale in demand in countries like India – and said he believed MOOCs will play a major part in this.

Responding to Sennett’s anecdote about the difficulty of providing adequate teaching support via MOOCs (Sennett taught one of MIT’s first MOOCs, and claimed to have received 7,000 emails after his first online lecture), Willetts said he believed they would evolve to meet this challenge, largely through the use of collaborative learning platforms. He also predicted growing use of ‘education analytics’ to track trends in learning patterns, and highlight common errors.

Sennett seemed to argue for more of a hybrid approach, pointing out that hands-on learning remains essential for many professions, and arguing that the creation of paid apprenticeships should be a top priority for governments today.

On the subject of universities in developing regions, Willetts made a case for the addition of higher education to the Millennium Development Goals. He argued that while the focus on literacy levels has been and remains vital, the lack of a goal linked to tertiary education has meant universities have gone under-supported in some countries where there is a real demand for higher education to be developed.

The importance of diversity

While some of the speakers focused more on the challenges facing research-focused universities, and others on the challenges of extending higher education provision to a growing number of students worldwide, they did ultimately all agree on one thing: diversity of universities is not just a part of the way things are, but essential for a successful higher education system.

As one example, Collini praised the California university system, which incorporates three basic types of university – community colleges, state universities and research-focused institutes (of which UCLA and UC Berkeley are the best known) – all with distinct roles, but also interconnected and feeding into one another.

Meanwhile Pratap Bhanu Mehta stressed the dangers of believing that one successful system could simply be copied and recreated elsewhere, suggesting that India had fallen into this trap, and that this could be one possible explanation for the IITs’ failure to live up to the high expectations they were established under.

Willetts made a similar point when jokingly describing his frustration during visits to education ministers and leaders in other countries. Many are so blinded by the prestige of Oxford and Cambridge, he said, that they’re unwilling to see the diverse strengths of the UK’s other universities – which may actually be better partners for their own institutions.

In general, the panellists were noticeably scrupulous in reiterating the belief that no one type of university is superior to another: all fulfil important roles for today’s societies and economies, in different ways. Only briefly touched upon was the question of whether it’s preferable (or possible) to keep different types of university distinct, or whether diversity of function within universities is also beneficial. But from the various examples raised during the evening – from California to sub-Saharan Africa – the general consensus seemed to be: it depends on the social context. 

What works in California (Willetts was very emphatic on this!) would not necessarily fly in the UK. What works in the UK cannot be simply transplanted into a population-booming India. And while there’s no doubt that technology will play a major role in the next generation of universities, exactly how this will work out in practice is still very much open to conjecture.

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Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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