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What are universities for?

by Shaun Horan | Mar 14, 2018 | News

Halpin Partnership joint-CEO and Higher Education fellow Shaun Horan explores the role (and value) of universities…

Many years ago, an inspirational university leader told me that universities exist for three reasons:

Firstly, the preservation of eternal truths. This may sound very high flown, and indeed it is, but the point is quite simple. We need our great universities to teach the next generations the facts as we know them, and how to analyse, interpret and question them.

Secondly, the creation of new knowledge. A function less spoken about is the role of universities in life-changing research. Indeed, many former students will say that this is an aspect of the university that they had little knowledge or awareness of. In fact, the cures to many of the diseases that plague us today will be discovered on a campus somewhere, or at the very least will have been contributed to by research in a university lab. And it’s not just science. Pushing the limits on creative expression, producing great artists and thinkers – all the job of the academy.

Lastly, and even more high flown, their purpose is to perform a service to humanity. And it’s this last point that is crucial.

It seems that it might have once been accepted that a university education was a public good – having an amount of highly educated people was a good thing for any society and its economy. We need to extend human knowledge and enrich the human experience and very practically, we need teachers, doctors, lawyers, economists, scientists, engineers and so on. These were the drivers that motivated of the founders of our universities – those who fought to create universities across the country.

More recently the political narrative appears to have moved from the public good to the private good. University education is seen purely to benefit the individual – the common view appears to be that ‘you gain in income by experiencing Higher Education, therefore you pay for it’ – the student is now a ‘customer’ buying opportunity rather than a learner and a scholar contributing to the greater good.

The ‘student as customer’ sits perfectly within the view that higher education should be a marketplace, where competition is the order of the day. Customers should choose the institution which will best serve their interests and is most deserving of their fee.

Once we accept students as customers and HE as a marketplace then it is natural for us to consider a University as “a business”.

So does this matter? Is the press right to worry that university leaders are “fat cats”, exploiting students and staff? Or are those who see the running of universities as businesses in a marketplace, and driving improvements for students and greater efficiency, right?

I suspect the truth, as ever, is somewhere in between. There is nothing more important than education – it is the base from which everything else flows at its most fundamental level. Without it there are no professions, no medical advances, no informed debates on what is right and wrong. Universities are a part of an education system that should be viewed as a whole. People will tend to underline the parts that worked best for them – those who went to grammar schools may want to see more of them. Those who got a scholarship to a private school might be determined to send their own children into the same system, or to support more scholarships. A great comprehensive education might lead someone else to question whether the previous two types of education should exist at all.

No one answer has been found as to what is the “right” form of education. There is no one key to this – there are many doors with countless locks that work for some and not others. What we can say is that the university is a vital part of the system and can be an engine of social mobility. How they are viewed and run is therefore very important.

So should universities stand outside of the commercial world, and be run by people who are willing to do the job for significantly less money than seems to be the case at present? If we accept that some version of the three reasons for Universities to exist is correct, it’s clearly crucial that we get the answers right.

Universities should clearly be efficient and effective, and yes trustees from the business world bring some excellent experience to university councils, and can and should provide challenge. But for effective governance, we need a mix of voices – those from non-profits as well as the commercial world. Universities are not “normal” organisations in the business sense. Academics do not generally work for them to simply draw a salary, but because of a profound interest and commitment to a particular area. Indeed, many will not consider that they work “for” the university at all. Leadership in these circumstances is highly challenging – a leader needs consent, if not always enthusiasm, to lead, but leading a team of people whose job is to challenge everything is not simple.

We need to bring some balance back to this debate. We should remember why universities exist, and crucial role they play in creating good societies. The public, as well as the private good. Open and reasoned debate should always be welcomed, and so should an examination when things go wrong. The market is a useful way of deciding some things, but not all. The life of an average business, before it morphs into something different, might be around 5-20 years. Most of our universities have been around in some form for a hundred years, sometimes a thousand. They need to be equipped to move with the times, but also to stand apart from those times, and do and preserve some of the things they have always done.

I hope in the continuing debates about HE, particularly in the light of the recently announced HE review, that we remember the long term, and the public good. Let’s put time and effort into good governance, and into strong and informed debate, so that we can leave our universities to continue performing a service to humanity. Those who know the price of everything, whatever their convictions, should not be the sole voice.