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.