How specialised is your university?

What makes a university a university? A few years ago I had this discussion with a group of academics, and two of them suggested that, in order to be a legitimate university, an institution had to address a number of academic subject areas, which would have to include history and mathematics. At the time I was President of Dublin City University, and while we had a School of Mathematical Sciences, we didn’t cover history. Now I am Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and we have neither. Does this mean we aren’t a legitimate university?

But while you’re grappling with that, things can get much narrower still. The newest kid on the university block in the United Kingdom is what will be known as the University of Law (formerly the College of Law). As the name suggests, this is a one-subject university, covering only law. All its courses are for practising or aspiring lawyers, and while some of these courses are offered at a postgraduate level, there are no research degrees, and no particular evidence of a research culture amongst staff.

So then, is the University of Law a university? Yes, say the authorities – by granting it university status. And moreover, waiting off-stage is the firm Montagu Private Equity. If their takeover succeeds, the University of Law will be a for-profit undertaking.

It is clearly not my intention to suggest that having a rich subject mix covering all traditional disciplines is necessary to make anyone a university. I believe that the future of higher education will involve much more in the way of institutional specialisation. But the essence of modern academic life lies in trans-disciplinary knowledge and discovery, and it is hard to see how a single-issue college can cover that. It is unlikely that the college intends to be a player in new analysis and knowledge generation, either.

I am not doubting the value of the University of Law, or the quality of what it does. I used to work with them quite closely when I was Dean of the University of Hull Law School in the 1990s. But I am doubting whether it is a university, and I find it difficult to see what benefit is derived by anyone from this change of status. What this change does do, however, is to make it much more difficult to see what meaningful criteria, if any, should govern the granting of university status. Time will tell, perhaps.

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6 Comments on “How specialised is your university?”

  1. V.H Says:

    Wonder. That’s it. If a place actively wonders then it hardly matters. Think of it this way. Why did the university develop as it did. The answer is practicality. And nowadays there is little need why each area of study is on one campus. So if not in the one campus. What’s the difference having the subjects scattered about a town, county or state/country.
    As to why the craft of law needs status, I expect it’s financial. Perhaps students can access the Student Loan Co easier. Or perhaps they can draw from the DoE easier. Of course it could be a question of standing with and between those holding exalted position in other states. You wouldn’t for want of the Great Seal pressed in wax to have your top lawsmiths and judges being relegated in any order of precedence.

  2. Bill Fleming Says:

    They don’t seem to mind having no Music or Theology at UCL.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    *What this change does do, however, is to make it much more difficult to see what meaningful criteria, if any, should govern the granting of university status. Time will tell, perhaps.*

    No need to wait that long, as an interesting coincidence it has just been announced that UK Universities and Science Minister David Willetts will recommend to the Privy Council that 10 higher education institutions have met the criteria to be awarded the title of university. This is the single biggest creation of universities since 1992. The list of new universities and a description of criteria is to be found here:

    At a time when university applicants are down (following the introduction of higher uni fees in England) the creation of 10 new universities does not seem to respond any *market* driven logic, on the other hand though, as the BIS press release aptly reminds us ‘The Government first proposed reducing the minimum number of students necessary to obtain university title from 4,000 to 1,000 in the 2011 higher education white paper, Students at the heart of the system’, so today’s news are to be seen as the implementation of a planned HE agenda.

    Curiously, in support of the creation of the new universities, Willetts comments: ‘“These well-known and highly-regarded university colleges represent over 1,200 years of history between them. It is right to remove the barriers preventing high-quality higher education providers like these calling themselves universities simply because of their size.”
    I just wonder, the combined age of the Rolling Stones is 240, so is that a value criteria? Today’s announcement does not *rock* at all, it is just a cacophony of ideology driven sounds.

  4. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    The benefit will be to the new institutions themselves which will evolve along with traditional universities in the new HE “landscape”.

    Traditional law degrees offered by traditional universities are really under pressure nowadays as the proliferation of niche for-profit providers scoop up lots of aspiring lawyers. The single-subject law schools/universities often offer their students guaranteed placements in law offices, something the old universities don’t generally do.

    In one sense, this suits both the government’s market-driven agenda and that of students who are looking for a return on investment which justifies the high costs of study.

    My feeling is that Willetts is intentionally rewarding institutions of whatever shape or size that have a more market-driven, consumerist approach to education with the “University” title, and in time they will displace some of the less nimble existing universities. But in time traditional unis will have to learn some of the tricks from the newcomers and will eventually have to adapt or go out of business. There is a general trend in business away from the conglomerate approach to specialisation in core competences, and perhaps universities should sit up and pay more attention.

    • V.H Says:

      In all probability they can make such offers for they are adjuncts to the professional bodies. But since some uni’s have strong connections to industry, any objections of the traditional variety would sound very thin.

  5. Andrew Says:

    I wonder what % of staff in these “Universities” have PhD? Also will these Universities have PhD rewarding powers? Surely an absolutely defining property of any University is scholarship, and it is not certain what degree of scholarship is likely to go one in such institutions. Without this, where does the line between FE and HE exist. Mind you, to be fair to the newcomers, one might make the same argument about some existing Universities:

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