So what makes a university?

As Ireland continues to struggle with the not very well thought out idea of ‘technological universities’ – now under fire because the somewhat daft requirement for candidate institutions to merge with others first is producing unexpectedly high costs – and England works on for-profit university institutions, new universities are also being created in the United States. The latest upgrade is what was the Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, now to be Stockton University.

What is interesting about the announcement of its new status is that it is being described as a ‘comprehensive’ university, which in turn is explained by the institution itself as follows:

‘Comprehensive universities emphasize teaching, as opposed to research universities, which place more emphasis on faculty members’ research being published in refereed journals and books for promotion and tenure.’

So what is it that makes a university a university? If Stockton College continues to do as Stockton University what it did before, what will be the significance of the change, and how is its appropriateness assessed? And to what extent do we (or should we) regard research as the calling card of a university?

It is not just in America that the answers to these questions may not be altogether clear. And of course there is no reason to think that only one model of university is legitimate. Nevertheless, if we are to protect the concept and brand of a ‘university’, we need to have a clear idea of what that is. And I’m not sure we do.

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5 Comments on “So what makes a university?”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    And there’s the curious new act going through the Dáil regarding use of the word ‘university’ to promote abroad an institution which technically is not a university (since a specialist institution focusing on only medicine, albeit highly regarded and providing ‘university level’ programmes). In some countries the law would be to prevent such use. In Ireland it is to allow it. Interesting (and confusing) times.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    “And to what extent do we (or should we) regard research as the calling card of a university?”
    This made me think of an article in last week’s THE “Research: the wrong priority for the arts and humanities?” which almost made me choke on my cornflakes. While it denounced what the author (rightly) defined “The cult of research” which “means there is little concern these days for the social value and purpose of a university education”, it also went on to argue that:
    “Research in the sciences is critically important to society as demonstrated daily in innumerable ways. Research in the arts can rarely make the same claims.”
    Unsurprisingly, the trite metaphor of the university as ‘ivory tower’ is evoked in the following paragraph:

    Call me naive, but I have always thought that university departments in the arts and humanities should be primarily about teaching and learning, not research. Surely it is morally right, in arts subjects, for taxpayers’ money and students’ tuition fees to be spent on educational aims rather than being linked to the achievement of research objectives. That’s not to say that research does not have a role to play. We need something substantial to teach and good course material is reliant on the discoveries and views of researchers past and present. But if the focus is to be on a student’s intellectual needs rather than the lecturer’s, then research needs to be used as a means to achieve an educational end rather than a selfish end in itself. (

    While it is true that academics ‘selfishly’ and strategically pursue ‘some’ research paths for career progression (something that is often encouraged by the institution and is ambition necessarily an evil motivation?) The focus should be not only on the student’s intellectual needs but on the lecturer’s as well, besides how could one achieve ‘something substantial’ to teach in the arts if the criticality of research in this fields is denied? What we should strive towards instead is to make the research-teaching nexus better understood. As this LSE post rightly puts it:

    understanding and an appreciation of the links between research and teaching are important if students are to fully benefit from ‘higher’ levels of integration between research and teaching by acquiring necessary skills (the so-called ‘research literacy’) and engaging in research as early on in their studies as possible, thus becoming an integral part of the research community.

    So, what makes a university? And what are the implications of granting university status? Surely they must rest upon assumptions of quality assurance, public perception, institutional legitimacy, to name a few. Given the Anglo-Irish cultural perspective of this blog it might be worth remembering that one the most comprehensive explication of a university mandate is Ireland’s Universities Act, 1997. The “objects and functions” of the
    university include:
    • the promotion of learning for students and society generally,
    • promotion of cultural and social life of society,
    • independent critical thinking,
    • contribution to national economic and social development,
    • promotion, facilitation, and dissemination of outcomes of research
    • facilitation of lifelong learning, and
    • the promotion of gender balance and equality of opportunity among university population

    Readers of this blog may assess how successful our universities are in implementing all of the above and whether what is currently in peril is the very *essence* of the university as – in Benjamin Disraeli’s words – “a place of light, of liberty, and of learning”.

  3. Cormac Says:

    Apart from the issue of teaching, learning and research (and I do think the last one marks the difference between a third level college and a university), another aspect of universities often gets left out of the conversation; universality.
    I notice Stockton College above does not have a school of engineering, a school of medicine or a school of computing – that’s fine for a third level college, but is that a university? It is for this reason that MIT and Caltech never sought the label ‘university’…it’ s not always about standards!

  4. Leo J. Denslow Says:

    What is the legal definition of a university?

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