The word “university”

“University” appears to have its origins in Latin. This is odd, however, because while the Romans knew of teachers, students, scholarship, and libraries, they had nothing that could be regarded as a university in the modern sense (at least not before the Pandidakterion at Constantinople, founded in 425 AD). Quite common would have been the “academiae” – specialist schools or institutes, the word and the concept being borrowed from the Greeks (or more specifically, the Athenians of the 4th century BC – the original “Akademia” was the site where Plato taught). While this has given us the word “academic”, nonetheless “academy” has retained its Greek and Latin connotations of compactness and specialism. No modern institution that could claim the title “university” would ever describe itself as an “academy”.

In classical Latin, “universitas” meant the whole, or a totality; hence the English words “universe” and “universal”. In late Latin it also began to mean a corporation or collectivity – a group of people who have banded together and act together. This is where usage begins to look familiar: when those pursuing higher learning began to form significant permanent institutions (as increasingly happened in Europe from the 11th century onwards), they would refer to themselves as a “universitas”. But this was not the official term for their institutions. The formal term for a university, as found in government documents and papal decrees, was “studium generale”, and this remains the standard Latin translation of the modern English “university”. Technically speaking, the “universitas” was not the institution itself but the guild of those working there: the “universitas magistrorum et scholarium”, that is, “guild of masters/professors and scholars/students”. In an age where the questioning of received wisdom was viewed with suspicion, where most people might only rarely leave their own village and so scholars from abroad could seem bizarre and threatening, and where the concept of a “knowledge economy” would have seemed utopian, the need for mutual protection from an uncomprehending and potentially hostile world was obvious. The guild or “universitas” was the bedrock of that protection.

“University” therefore hints at a very different world from that which universities now inhabit, both externally and internally. An important feature of any modern university would be a claim to a broad or “universal” knowledge, but this seems to be a linguistic accident. If the word were still being used in its original sense, it would more properly be applied to an academic trade union, staff association or student union. Internally and structurally, modern universities bear little resemblance to the mediaeval “universitates”, which often ran themselves in a very democratic spirit. We can say (with a negative spin) that internal university “democracy”, while not quite dead, is in very poor shape; or (with a positive spin) that a democratic freedom to raise awkward intellectual questions is now better established throughout the whole of society, and so the universities no longer stand out to the extent that they once did. The older universities still occasionally refer to themselves in the old spirit; so for example the charter of University College Cork (1908) refers to the college as a “Body Corporate”, and lists its membership, including staff students and graduates. However, while the corporate status of universities is of continuing importance, their membership for legal purposes is of little modern significance.