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The (Former) Idea of a University

Tim Mackenzie



You probably didn’t notice it when you collected your MP3 player from the nice woman at the National Bank, nor when you signed up for your student loan, but the university is in crisis. There’s nothing new about the crisis, but you can guarantee it’s not going away in a hurry. It lurks at the back of every University Council meeting, and it’s quietly present in half the conversations held in every University Staff Club around the globe.

No-one can agree what the University is for.
Once upon a time, that wasn’t much of a problem. In Western Europe at least, medieval universities were united across their range of subject areas by the common pursuit of truth. Grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music were all studied on a quest to discover truth, and they led in turn to the study of medicine, law, and theology, which again had truth as their goal. Unsurprisingly, this quest occurred in the shadow of the cathedrals, because the quest for truth was, ultimately, the quest for the greatest knowledge of all, the knowledge of God. Of course, none of this stopped the students from drinking too much and rioting regularly (the University of Paris was closed for 2 years from 1229 after one particularly heinous riot), but the whole academic enterprise was undergirded by the conviction that studying literature and mathematics and music was part of the process of tracing God’s creative work in the universe.
Slowly, as the centuries passed, so too did the conviction that Universities were thinking God’s thoughts after him. But there remained in place an ideal of the University as somewhere where everything should be studied. No-one would have disagreed with Cardinal J.H. Newman’s high-minded idealism when, in 1854, he described the university as “the high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery, of experiment and speculation” In fact, lots of people would still agree with that. I imagine most of you reading this article would be comfortable with the idea that universities should teach both astrophysics and anthropology, both zoology and Zoroastrianism.
Yet there’s a problem. Many of the original justifications behind the university enterprise have been abandoned. It’s as if we’ve inherited an old model of the university as the place for inquiry and speculation; the university as a great, slightly ramshackle mansion, which provides a roof to shelter the whole community in studying the humanities, the sciences, commerce and so on. But over time, someone has been chipping away at the foundations, and replacing them with scaffolding.
Where the old foundations committed universities to a passionate quest for Truth and Enlightenment wherever they could be found, the new scaffolding is a whole lot cheaper, and it can no longer bear such a heavy load.
So if universities no longer exist primarily to pursue the truth, what is their current purpose? Part XIV of the Education Act 1989 still contains some laudable language about academic freedom and intellectual independence, and about the university’s role as conscience and “critic of society”. But the Act carefully balances that with requirements for universities to practise accountability in using “the resources allocated to them”. It’s not a long journey from there to large advertising budgets, aggressive marketing campaigns to get bums on seats – and the inevitable course closures. Universities are now money-making institutions, just the same as any other corporation in society. Make no mistake: there’s money in them there students.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to accountability and the careful use of public money, to the study of accountancy or to popular courses. Nor am I advocating the overthrow of the market and a return to medievalism. Yet I’m not sure that the present system is sustainable in the long haul. Here’s one example. The drive towards efficiency has led to a call for measurable outcomes in all areas, including research.
For some years, university lecturers have been part of a system which assesses their research “outputs” and awards them with a grade for their work. There are pros and cons to such a system. But there is little doubt that it has turned the drive towards publication into a treadmill.
Lecturers are under immense pressure to produce work quickly, in order to outscore rival departments and to secure a higher share of the available performance-based research funding (PBRF). There is no longer any incentive to take time to produce quality work, lest a researcher miss out on the next funding round. Compare this with the experience of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, in a kinder age. After reading the work of David Hume, Kant was dumbstruck. He ceased publication for 11 years, before finally producing his famous Critique of Pure Reason. In today’s terms, those 11 years would probably see him declared “research inactive”
Quite apart from the personal toll on individual teaching staff, this new culture has other consequences. While academics have always been under some pressure to publish, the present degree of pressure threatens to reduce their focus on undergraduate teaching. Comparably, there is little incentive to assess those undergraduates rigorously, since the holders of the government purse-strings are particularly keen on courses with high completion rates.
None of this can be blamed on the university. Rather, it reflects wider currents at work in our society. Intuitively, most of us can sense the value in having a society that prizes history and poetry and languages. But we’re hard-pressed to explain why, because we lack a common vision to justify our intuition. Since we’re no longer medieval people who think they know what the pursuit of truth would look like, we find ourselves united by a belief in Efficiency, and precious little else. And let’s face it, the study of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason will never make for a lean, mean, market-friendly machine, no matter how much spin you apply to it.
So is there a point to university, a justification that can ever safeguard your favourite subjects from the imperatives of the dollar? I’m convinced there is, though it’s never likely to be particularly popular, since it depends on the rather unfashionable idea of “love”. Here it is, in the words of theologian Gavin D’Costa:
Put bluntly, the purpose of the university is to find love at the heart of all things, for love is the cause of the world. This does not mean that the study of atoms is going to show that love rather than neutrons and protons is to be found.
Rather, once the atomic structure has been explicated, the question of how such ordering analogically facilitates the possibilities of love, harmony, beauty, and truth is vital, and is another way of recognizing the ethical and methodological dimensions of the disciplines.
Engaging fully with that quotation requires us to be aware of Dante’s “love that moves the sun and other stars” (a Love that turns out to be divine) and Aquinas’s “Unmoved Mover”. Almost certainly, the quotation contains other allusions that I don’t recognise yet. But helping us to discover them is part of the university’s proper purpose, a purpose that might, if we let it, still lead us on from love to Love.