Breadth and depth: what is a university?

Universities as centres for teaching and research in a broad range of disciplines have always existed alongside more specialised institutions such as colleges of law and the performing arts, and institutes of one kind and another. 

Without demeaning the latter it is important that we recognise the special value of the former that inheres in their breadth. UCU’s recent important report about the reduction in courses in core subjects available over the last few years should focus our minds on the need to articulate and defend the conception of universities as broad-based centres of education and scholarship. That the elimination of many single honours courses to which the union has drawn attention has happened in advance of the present government’s disgraceful drive to commercialise higher education does not augur well for the immediate future. There is a great danger that universities will base decisions about what subjects they offer on the short-term popularity of courses and so undermine our medium and long-term national interest. Academic capacity is easily undermined but takes years to develop, so disinvestment cannot easily be reversed especially when the capacity in question is significantly reduced at the national level.

To abet and reverse the current trend for universities to close courses perceived to be insufficiently important we must challenge the crass instrumentalism that characterises contemporary debate about education in general and higher education in particular. Instrumentalism need not be crass because a proper appreciation of what universities contribute to society need not be based on lofty ideals of education for its own sake. On the contrary, even if all we care about it is the economy and equipping students with the skills and wherewithal to take their place in it, we ought still to recognise the importance of exposing them as whole to a good portion of the full range of the traditional university curriculum. Our national competitiveness in the global economy is not going to be based on natural resources or cheap labour markets, so it can only be based on the education of our population.

We cannot predict what exactly the future will require of us, but we do know that education in traditional academic disciplines teaches people how to think and how to learn making them adaptable and providing us with a national insurance policy against future contingencies. Already, European universities are seeking to capitalise on our disinvestment in higher education and the uncertainties about our commitment to it by offering English language degree programmes to recruit UK and foreign students that would otherwise study in our universities. We spend a smaller proportion of our GDP than any developed nation on higher education; now is not the time to further undermine our universities by reducing the range of degree programmes they offer, while other countries are increasing their investment across the board.

Students who attend a university that offers a wide range of subjects enjoy important benefits that do not derive from their own curricula.

Perhaps most important among these is that they are exposed to the rest of culture by mixing with other students who are studying very different things. In terms of the vulgar but ubiquitous contemporary idiom, part of the student experience is conversing about the meaning of life, politics, art, literature, history, science and religion with a range of people each of whom brings their own disciplinary knowledge and sensibility to the discussion. To deny future generations of students that experience unless they happen to be at one of the handful of elite institutions that remain universities in the full sense of the word will be to impoverish them and thereby further to atomise and diminish our culture as a whole.

The internet is reducing our exposure to ideas and values that are not already our own as search engines filter content based on our habits and interests, and as on-line communities enable people with highly idiosyncratic cultural identities to ensure they only mix with others like themselves. Universities are an indispensable counter-balance to this trend but only to the extent that they continue to offer a wide range of courses. It is important to note that it is not only the arts and humanities that are under threat but subjects such as biology and chemistry; while universities rush to offer the latest new subjects such as nanotechnology or bio-engineering they must ensure that the foundations of science in the basic core disciplines are secure.

There is no list of subjects that must be represented in a university for it to count as one. However, as the number and range of disciplines is reduced the intellectual culture and context of those that remain is impoverished. Eliminate enough of them and nothing worthy of the name university remains. There have always been institutions such as Imperial College that have specialised and not hosted a full range of subjects. However, they have hitherto been exceptions to the general rule and exist in cities where other universities fill the gaps they leave.

As financial pressures on universities grow and as their leaders increasingly think in terms of the bottom line and commercial and market values, we face the prospect of whole regions in which fundamental academic subjects cannot be studied. This is a dire threat to our economy and our intellectual culture, and we must recognise that the former depends on the latter as a whole and not just on those subjects that are presently in vogue. ^

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