The last word in new universities?

A quarter century ago neither the university for which I now work, nor the one for which I worked until last spring, had university status. And yet, over the years since they were given this status, both have thrived and have in many ways helped to set the agenda for higher education in their countries. It might therefore be argued that the decision to upgrade them was a good one. So does that mean that we should look positively at other proposals for university status?

This is now a significant issue for a number of reasons. In Ireland, as we have discussed here before, there is a growing expectation that the Institutes of Technology in Waterford and Carlow, and also those in Dublin, will become two ‘technological universities’. In England, in what admittedly is now a rather strange world of higher education, there has been a move to accredit private for-profit universities, the first one of which was BPP University College.

Of course what is going on in England is quite different from the ‘technological university’ question in Ireland. But what they both have in common is the question of what criteria should be used to determine any such change of status. In other words, is the term ‘university’ just another word, and is it in fact a restraint of trade to stop any organisation using it? Or could it be justified to restrict its use to academic institutions that have satisfied certain criteria relating to quality and standards? And because we now live in a highly globalized world, can we realistically expect to be able to stop anyone trading as a university, given that all they’ll have to do is find a country somewhere that doesn’t care and lets them set up a virtual operation?

It seems to me that the protection of the designation ‘university’ is vital but in order to do it effectively there needs to be an international consensus. I also believe that the criteria should be based solely on the capacity of the institution to do what universities do, to a high standard; questions about the need for a university in a particular region, or the importance of private competition, shouldn’t enter into it at all.

In the new world of globalised technology-assisted learning and transnational research, universities will play a key role. We should be open to new institutions in this world; but they in turn should continue to be independent bodies seeking to expand knowledge and stimulate critical inquiry.

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8 Comments on “The last word in new universities?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Surely there must be a number for published work accredited in peer reviewed publications over a five year period that would de facto cause the status of university to be recognised.
    Of course, using such a metric would trigger removal if over a similar period the volume and quality dropped.


  2. It’s important for quality of critical thinking development to be high within educational institutions promoting themselves as universitites. Early last year I left a College in Oz that offered online courses because I was disappointed and appauled at the lack of standardisation and quality of rubric and, lecturer reasoning for the grading of a paper. The Head of School agreed with me after I made an official complaint. Only then did I realise how widespread the lack of student-focus and critical thinking development was. So I quit the 2 year course. The HOS really did her best to encourage me to stay and to find a resolution, but she was one cog in a culture of ‘we are the expert’ and top-down non reflective pedagdy and policy.


  3. ‘It seems to me that the protection of the designation ‘university’ is vital but in order to do it effectively there needs to be an international consensus. I also believe that the criteria should be based solely on the capacity of the institution to do what universities do, to a high standard’

    It seems to me that to call for international consensus when even on your own blog you are reluctant to say with clarity what it is that universities do – or what are they key features amongst the many things that universities do – isn’t terribly realistic.

    Vincent underlines this point rather handily it seems to me by calling for university status to be based on peer-reviewed research (which it never has been before in the whole history of humanity) and to be withdrawn if the research dries up. International consensus is unlikely to develop on this kind of basis.


    • I’m not sure we can insist that the research intensive model is the only one that should be accepted internationally. If that were so, then several countries could not expect to have any universities at all.

      But we can lay down certain minimum requirements, to do with the nature of degree programmes, the level at which education takes place, the requirements as to academic content, the skills and awards expected of lecturers, and so forth.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    The tension for me, conceptually, lies in the justified need for universities to be ‘independent bodies’ while, simultaneously, work within the ‘protected’ designation of university..in other words between the freedom granted by independence and the enclosed ‘protection’ of the term one (rightly) wishes to preserve..an international, more collaborative approach to this might not be realistic, as Andrew states, still it is what should be aimed for. Aren’t we all learning anything from the current Euro/global financial crisis? We need to work collaboratively and create consensus internationally on the values and standards we share, educational matters are no exception.
    To end on a lighter note, it seems to me that some degree of protection is needed otherwise the risk is that the term university might end up like the global one for ‘pizza’. Such term is true to its meaning when it designates simple, fabulous food made up of dough, tomato and mozzarella, quite a different matter if, among the choice of toppings one finds pineapple and chicken!

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    A fellow twitter has just drawn my attention to today’s piece in the Atlantic entitled ‘The Great Unbundling of the University’,
    http://tinyurl.com/7hvc7dt
    key question being: ‘The bundle of knowledge and certification that have long-defined higher education is coming apart, but what happens now?
    I believe the ‘word’ university has encompassed such bundle so far, reconfiguring its meaning(s) in a fast changing technological world is exactly the challenge we face..

  6. cormac Says:

    I think the binary system of universities and IoTs works very well. I like the emphasis on technology in the IoTs, and the way students who might not get into traditional universities get a chance at third level education.

    However, like Ed Walshe, I also think the city of Waterford and surrounding region could benefit enormously by having a university (and has suffered by not having one). It already has a good IoT that could serve as the nucleus for the growth of a good university, and in an ideal world this is what would happen.

    However, I don’t believe it will happen because of the fear of me-too upgrades (a justified fear). Sean Flynn’s articles in the IT are typical of the public discourse on this subject; in discussing Waterford’s case, he immediately switches to the IoT/ university debate. Not only does he completely ignore an important regional argument, he quotes facts and figures that pertain to the IoT sector as a whole, not to WIT – extremely misleading.

    it is very hard to know what is the ‘right answer’ is. My own suspicion is that, far from being upgraded for political reasons in the teeth of expert advice, Waterford will not get a university – precisely for political reasons.

  7. syoll Says:

    Mission drift springs to mind and a lack of discourse on the value of Higher Education and the needs of society. I say needs and not wants. We need to have the appropriate discourse and the DES and the HEA need to show leadership and make a commitment to what the Irish society needs.


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