What is a university?

“… an institution of higher learning providing facilities for teaching and research and authorized to grant academic degrees …” (Merriam-Webster).

The core idea of a university is of a community of scholars with a high degree of intellectual freedom. Yet almost every element of standard definitions is or has been the subject of controversy. Whether either teaching or research is central has been doubted: many academics regard teaching as a distraction from their essential mission, others think that research inevitably ensnares universities in commitments that are at odds with their true goal. Yet the prestige of the autonomous university attracts many who claim a stake in it: students, businesses, religion and government all want the stamp of intellectual approval that only a university can give. And ironically, when we list threats to the freedom of universities, the same culprits appear.

Particular areas of controversy are:-

The definition of “academic” studies. Many subjects, disciplines and specialisms expect a place in the modern university. Each of those topics has at one time or another been made to run the gauntlet of academic disapproval, having to justify itself either as a novel discipline or as a legitimate sub-division within an accepted discipline. These battles still occur routinely – a common issue is whether certain areas of knowledge are too market-driven or “practical” to count as truly academic. By contrast, it is relatively rare for academic disciplines to disappear, though there are many examples of disciplines which have much less prominence than in earlier years. The range of modern knowledge is vast. We are very far past the time when any one person could know very much about more than a handful of disciplines, and this is apparent in major tensions within universities (Humanities vs. Physical Sciences vs. Social Sciences vs. Business and Professional Studies).

Autonomy of universities. Universities have many resources available to them – in some senses, positively thrust upon them – but each one of those resources has a price tag attached. How a university behaves in the light of those incentives is one of the matters defining it. This eternal truth applies at many levels, even on the most basic question of how the badge of “University” is earned. An institution which simply awards it to itself may seem to lack legitimacy; an institution which has the title conferred on may be regarded as having compromised its autonomy, as the conferrer undoubtedly will have expectations as the “university’s” behaviour. The “autonomy” of universities is therefore multi-faceted, as various as the bodies or forces which try to wield influence over them. Chief aspects of autonomy today are:-

  • Autonomy from government – Modern universities benefit hugely from government funding, but increasingly find that government control follows government money. The issues are complex: government motives are various; university management itself has various motives.
  • Autonomy from organised religion – Some types of religious commitment do not seem compatible with some types of academic enquiry. The limits of this are the backdrop to many disputes.
  • Autonomy from market forces – In teaching, the willingness of students to attend and to pay for courses is an important aspect of whether those courses will run at all. In research, willingness to fund the academics in their endeavours is usually contingent on results, though the nature of the contingency varies.

Academic freedom. The freedom of individual staff academic to teach and research as they see fit tends to take on a very different cast in different nations, in the light both of what is currently regarded as controversial and of what protection free speech should receive generally. Issues such as tenure and free speech on campus therefore appear in a bewildering variety of forms.

Here are some web-based sources on these and related issues.

The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman (1850s).

What is a university? by Stephen Schwartz (2008)

Ratzinger and Regensburg: On What Is a University? by James Schall (2006)

Useful Wikipedia entries are: Academic freedom, List of academic disciplines and University.

Leave a Reply