So, what makes a great university?

In anticipation of the publication shortly of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the THE has invited Twitter followers to declare succinctly what makes a university great. The responses, which I believe are mainly from younger and mid-career academics, are interesting. Here’s a sample:

• A place about minds, not behinds. Now try + measure that!
• Being called The University of Sheffield, of course😉
• Cheese.
• A great University is the community of great teachers and scholars.
• A great univ = place that is intellectually risk tolerant
• The students.
• GreatUni=A Uni where professors hav balance between passion for subject, ability to teach it 2 others & facilities to do so.
• A great univ = place that is intellectually risk tolerant.
• 1 that stimulates creativity, tantalizes intellect thus inspiring students to author theculture of their time.

In many ways our ability to discern what constitutes ‘greatness’ in higher education is becoming more and more important. As universities become more vulnerable to funding cuts and bureaucratisation, their ability to persuade the government (and the public) that what they do matters and needs to be protected will become vital. This is not just a responsibility of university managers, but of the whole academic community.

If there is to be a persuasive case, it needs to be less general (and banal) than some of the attempts above. The academy needs to be able to respond better to people’s expectations of higher education, and this means that we must understand those expectations better. A great university is more than a place with great and even tolerant minds: it is a place that does something with these. It is the difference we makes that makes us great.

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4 Comments on “So, what makes a great university?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Wondering and loving it. All while being with people that have a like mind.

    For what it’s worth FvP, there is a very real danger with both stances, yours and the THE. You cannot define greatness. Any attempt to do so will have you spinning your wheels in a very slippery substance. All while guaranteeing that it will never be achieved. A university is simply a place.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Vincent, I would not be dismissive of the category of ‘place’, not least when it comes to education (there is such a thing as Place-based education http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Place-based_education), in other words there is more to a place than its geography, ‘place’ is a social & cultural phenomenon…in this perspective the implications for universities are aparent..
      As for the difficulty to define greatness, well I would agree with you there, such difficulty might explain the vagueness (not the banality though) of some of the answers, one of the challenges of Twitter is exactly that to be succint and yet meaningful using only 140 characters..

  2. Al Says:

    One couldn’t be great without great students, great either before or after the university experience…
    Can that be said?


  3. I’m not sure ‘greatness’ is something anyone ought to aspire to. Great men – Napoleon, Alexander – have hardly added to the sum of human happiness.

    The most socially valuable work of the most socially valuable universities is humdrum – it comes when mediocre students from workaday backgrounds get the help they need to achieve their small dreams by becoming teachers or nurses or waste management professionals.

    Even when we look on the research side, the truth is that real achievements are the result of tens of thousands of really pretty ordinary people working in a pretty ordinary way. A focus on ‘great thinkers’ precisely misses the point of what makes effective institutions and effective cultures.


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