An edited and abridged version of this paper appeared in the Multimedia section of the Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 April 1996.

‘The Idea of a University’

What are universities for? What does it mean, in 1995, to receive a university education? What is the value to the individual and to society of such an education? Although many of us who work in the profession are prone in those ever more frequent moments of stress to succumb to Cartesian doubt over what we what we are doing and why, few are motivated to re-examine the most basic assumptions underpinning higher education. There is, on reflection, nothing natural about the traditional residential university; there is nothing natural about taking 18-year olds out of the world for three years into the cloistered halls of academia; there is nothing in the nature of history or physics or economics or whatever else, as disciplines, that determines that they can be neatly bounded and bundled up in three-year packages, or that specific topics can be uniformly packaged in one-hour timetable blocks. Indeed, there is an almost perverse unnaturalness in believing that, once a residential course of study is complete, one knows all that one needs to know about a discipline for a lifetime in work; and yet typically, although employment-based training or specialised evening classes may continue for some on (characteristically) an ad hoc basis, few adults ever think of ‘education’ or ‘learning’ as an open-ended process.

It was in part the purely physical restrictions on access to scholarly authority, whether medieval monk or Oxbridge don, and to the written and printed word — the library as a physical repository of knowledge—that necessitated the creation of bricks-and-mortar centres of learning: a subject expert could only ever be in one place at one time, and if you wanted to benefit from his knowledge and expertise you had no choice but to be where he (or, rarely, she) was. As important was the pastoral function, “the moral side of education, for which the socializing experience of residence was thought indispensible. Universities were to be communities, where the intangible benefits of character formation and the personal influence of teachers were as important as the lecture room” (R.D. Anderson, Universities and Elites in Britain since 1800).

A third reason argued for prolonged quasi-monastic retreat to the ivy-covered halls of academia: the ideal of a ‘liberal education’. Up until the early decades of the 19th century, universities in England—and that meant Oxford and Cambridge — remained the preserve of the landowning and aristocratic élite, valued as much as social ‘finishing schools’ as centres of intellectual endeavour, ‘vocational’ only in supplying the clergy of the anglican church. And although the middle years of the last century saw, in response to growing demand from a rising industrial and merchant nouveau riche, an expansion of higher education through the establishment of the new ‘civic’ universities — University College and King’s College London, Durham University, Queen’s College Birmingham, Owens College Manchester—with curricula diversifying to meet the bureaucratic, scientific, and engineering needs of an industrial, entrepreneurial society, the notion of the university as a training school for a skilled professional class serving the direct needs of the economy probably took second place, for entrants as for their parents, to the sense they had of now being admitted to an exclusive gentleman’s club. Universities were otherwise largely irrelevant in a pragmatic culture that still favoured learning through personal experience and apprenticeship to established practitioners, and in a scholastic tradition that still clung to John Newman’s ideal, expatiated in The Idea of a University (1852), and Matthew Arnold’s in Culture and Anarchy (1869), of ‘liberal education’ against utilitarian and vocational learning.

With the rapid expansion of the university sector across the middle years of the present century, the growing dependence of professional status upon formal qualifications through a public examination system, the decline of traditional apprenticeship, the professionalisation of learning, and now the massification of higher education in the 1990s, the university has taken on a new set of functions. While the ‘gentleman’s club’ snobbery persists to some extent (as Jimmy Porter testified in the 50s), Disraeli’s vision of the university as “a place of light, of liberty and of learning” has given way to a model of higher education institutions as partners with government and industry in vocational training for first employment. “Manpower planning”, as one pundit has bluntly phrased it. As has been pointed out many times, if a course is called ‘BSc Urban Estate Management’ or a ‘BA Accounting and Finance’, you know what its students will do on graduation.

The emergence of the standard course textbook in the post-war years has further contributed to a redefinition of what a university education is all about, and what the function of the lecturer is. A MBA student, in an article in the Education section of The Independent of 31st August 1995, writes to complain that some lecturers

seem to think that providing lecture notes that have been copied verbatim from textbooks and then simply going through them in class is called ‘teaching’. Some of them try to disguise this fact by copying the notes from obscure textbooks or by using an amalgam of such sources. These lecturers don’t add any value, and I can study their subjects from home using the same textbooks without attending their lectures. Indeed, I have noticed several classes always have no more than 50 per cent attendance rate for this very reason.

But with the massive increase in student numbers, the concomitant decline of the tutorial system, and the standardisation of curricula, this is unsurprisingly what the business of lecturing is in large part bound to become, our best intentions and personal quirks notwithstanding.

Finally, it may turn out that traditional universities are not simply becoming anachronistic but are also becoming incapable of fulfilling their historical functions as repositories and transmitters of knowledge. For example, Eli Noam, writing recently in Science (13th October 1995), observes that:

Most branches of science show an exponential growth of about 4 to 8% annually, with a doubling period of 10 to 15 years. … As the body of knowledge grows, fields of expertise evolve into ever narrower slices.
The inexorable specialization of scholars means that even research universities cannot maintain coverage of all subject areas in the face of the expanding universe of knowledge, unless their research staff grows the same rate as scholarly output, doubling every 5 to 10 years. This is not sustainable either economically or organizationally …

He goes on to note that university libraries can no longer afford to maintain, let alone expand, their holdings. But clearly the costs overall are unsustainable. Not simply is it a matter, for example, of the cost of university accommodation (administrative offices, lecture theatres, teaching rooms, student halls, libraries, toilets and cloakrooms, car parks, restaurants, sports and recreational facilities, …) and other overheads as against the cost of a personal computer and modem to the home learner. One of the most costly resources to a university is its teachers. And yet resources are dissipated in the traditional residential universities, where lectures and hard resources may be reduplicated across a number of different campuses. Essentially the same lecture in any discipline may, for example, be delivered in the course of a week by as many lecturers as there are universities which offer the subject. There is consequently a wasteful reduplication of both human and material resources, but one which is necessitated by the large number of geographically dispersed student groups. Consider, too, that of all lecturers delivering classes in some subject area, only some subset may truly be considered subject experts. Consequently, across a number of student groups, only a subset are able to benefit from tuition by an expert in the discipline. At the same time, much of a lecturer’s time is wasted on routine teaching that, as our MBA student observed, is effectively merely the regurgitation of textbooks.

All of which leads one to re-examine the role of the university and the continued need for residential teaching. It is, after all (and mercifully), no longer the finishing school of a privileged social élite, and its attendant moral function is long a thing of the past. If the face-to-face lecture is to become little more than a filter for textbook learning, then the dissemination of human knowledge through electronic copy may speak to a far wider audience. Similarly, the ideal of a liberal education, no longer tied to a élitist and exclusive value system, may be far better served by the growing volume of electronic materials freely accessible on the Internet. With new technologies relentlessly redefining the way we work and live in the so-called Information Society, it may not merely be a costly anachronism to continue to embrace the model of the traditional residential university as the primary locus of learning — it may arguably be an impediment to appropriate learning and ultimately a threat to growth, both economic and personal. The school, college, and university, as physical locations for the dissemination of knowledge and the support of learning, will increasingly be seen as a product of the now waning print culture, the ‘Gutenberg galaxy’.

The scene is set, then, for the emergence of the ‘virtual university’. If structured high quality learning materials, with appropriate and effective tutorial support, can be made available online to whoever has access to a computer and modem, without other constraints of time and place, then the traditional residential teaching university would seem to become largely redundant.