Opening up the university

In 1979, when I was working on my PhD in Cambridge, I was invited to address a short course on employment law conducted by the university’s Department of Extra-Mural Studies, located a little outside the town in the amazing Madingley Hall. I don’t remember that much about it now – it was one hour on a Saturday morning – except that I found the participants to be interesting. It was a varied group, including a car mechanic, a factory shop steward and a retired army colonel. The conversation between the latter two was particularly lively.

The term ‘extra-mural’ is interesting. It is the traditional name for a university’s offering to those ‘outside the walls’ – i.e. those who are not members in a formal sense of the university. Today it sounds quaint, and many universities, in fact including Cambridge (and also Oxford), have now opted for names like ‘Institute of Continuing Education’, thereby moving the activity a little more into the territory of formal education for credit. In addition, many of the courses are now offered online.

But leaving the nomenclature aside, extra-mural education is an important university function. Higher education may be mostly about formal accreditation, but some of it should be about engaging with the wider community and offering some access to the expertise the university possesses in its people for those who cannot or will not take the formal degree route. It is also a way of ensuring that universities do not see themselves as keepers of a flame that gives light to a social elite. And so maybe it is also better that the term ‘extra-mural’ has been abandoned, because all of society should be somewhere within the walls; or rather, because there should be no walls.

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4 Comments on “Opening up the university”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    As often it is the case there is some kind of narrative that links up these blog posts, this might be or not a conscious choice, in any case it seems pretty obvious to me that one of the tools universities have to ‘open up’ and do without walls (ideally of any kind) is by the smart use of social media (the topic of last week’s post) and digital technologies in general. The potential of social media use in universities lies not only in marketing and pedagogy, as it has been argued, but exactly in breaking those impenetrable walls which make communication difficult, both within the academy and with the so called ‘real world’, this is where the most interesting potential lies. At times of walls building and post-truths every day must be a university ‘open day’.

  2. Vince Says:

    “that universities do not see themselves as keepers of a flame that gives light to a social elite.” It’s kinda hard not see the Russell Group doing anything other. Also it’s hard to see the current Tory party and their position on private schooling being anything other than an active tightening of access to any Arts orientated establishment. I may be controversial here, but I think they have some really really nasty cast system in mind where they are the Brahmin’s. Or republicans in that Spartan sense where you have a 400 families and helots kept in place by lack of education or opportunity.


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