What makes a university great?

For those struggling with the question of what constitutes real leading excellence in higher eduction, the editor of Times Higher Education, Ann Mroz, suggests some answers in her editorial in the most recent issue. And it is, she suggests, all about ideals. She quotes, approvingly, the words of the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University at a recent conference in Hong Kong, that the values underpinning a great university are ‘the free and open communication of ideas, academic freedom, disinterestedness, working for the common good’. And then she concludes:

‘To be the best, to want the best, is at the heart of human ambition. And a desire to spread knowledge globally to as many people as possible can only be applauded…  The world may be changing, but some things must always remain the same. Higher education’s fundamental academic values are precious, and we should never forget what a university, especially a great one, is for.’

Of course nobody could possibly want to argue against these values; they are obviously right. But they are not the answer to the question ‘What is a world class university?’ Rather, they are a reflection on what ideals a world class university, or actually any university, should espouse. But ideals alone don’t guarantee sustainable higher education.

In saying this, it is not my intention to be pedantic. However, my suspicion is that some in the academic community worldwide have slipped into a state of mind in which they believe that support for higher education should depend solely on a set of idealistic values. But as the taxpayer in many countries scrambles to find the resources not just for higher education but for just about anything, that won’t be enough. Governments now want higher education to deliver on targets, whether these are about student numbers, transferable skills, commercialised research, local regeneration, and so forth. Academic ideals may seem in such a context not only to be a distraction from deliverables, they may (and often justifiably) seem to contradict the whole notion of having deliverables at all. As a senior academic recently assured me, ‘universities don’t do, they are.’

To avoid any misunderstanding, I am fully signed up to the values listed by Professor Nigel Thrift (Vice-Chancellor of Warwick). I agree that academic freedom and intellectual integrity are at the heart of higher education. But there will have to be more than that. Universities are not just iconic concepts, they are visible organisations that deliver quite specific and often very tangible services. They are not the occupier’s of Herman Hesse’s ‘Castalia’ (from his novel Das Glasperlenspiel, or the ‘Glass Bead Game’, which every serious intellectual should have read), pursuing abstract intellectual goals.

One of the problems that universities worldwide are facing is that the value discourse that the academic community often pursues no longer attracts admiration from a wider population, who may see universities as institutions that should deliver on rather more tactical and tangible objectives. It is this failure to connect that has helped to create both the funding issues and the frequent criticism by stakeholders of what they see in the universities. This is a dialogue we need to get right, because if we don’t we may still have the values, but probably not the great universities.

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3 Comments on “What makes a university great?”

  1. Al Says:

    Perhaps, research has become overly focused on peer interaction rather than community interaction.
    Can there be both at the same time…..

  2. kevin denny Says:

    But were universities ever that popular in the first place? Given that relatively few attended I doubt if there was much awareness of them other than perhaps a general feeling that universities were a good thing, like motherhood and apple pie. In Ireland, I don’t think universities were that important in public life certainly when it came to public policy. Unlike many countries, academics have tended not to be involved in politics- a rather Anglo-Saxon tendency it seems.
    Perhaps the difference is that now they are more expensive & the public’s indifference is more telling. The sector certainly needs to promote itself better without getting into the trap of being seen only as an instrument of economic development & vocational education.
    It seems strange that the IT’s want to be universities when some in the universities seem to want them to become IT’s.

  3. Mark Ennis Says:

    As I see it, the problem facing universities is one of remaining independent from commercial pressures, while still being relevant to society at large. If funding for universities comes largely as a result of meeting targets, especially with regard to “commercialised research,” is there a danger that research will be driven artificially to support industry, with compromises on intellectual integrity. If an academic reaches a conclusion in his/her research which goes against government or corporate interests, how is it possible to ensure that the incentives remain to be objective? I fear that when the state wants to promote industry, and industry is motivated by profit, the need to satisfy this will fundamentally alter universities into losing their core aim: the furthering of knowledge.

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