The Shadow of a Flame

Eight years ago, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Clare Hall, Cambridge, Stefan Collini, found himself pondering “what are universities for?” It’s not entirely clear what his answer to that question was or is, although he committed his ponderings to a book (reviewed with such astringent glee that one has to assume the reviewer was familiar to his victim). Collini bemoaned getting an “upper body workout” carrying around agenda papers for a Cambridge meeting. Surely universities were not for that? And it does feel unlikely, and uncharacteristic, if Cambridge had been ahead of the game by cleverly incorporating employee micro-workouts into the workplace routine.

So what, then, are universities for? The obvious answer, of course, is research and education. Sure, they’re about that, but the answer is way too obvious and simplistic. Firstly, it’s a response that risks misunderstanding the importance of symbiosis between the two, which only the financially illiterate or pathologically careerist will do: sure you can have research institutes that don’t take students, and you can have technical colleges (and now some modern universities) that don’t do research, but almost every serious national higher education system either subsidizes one with income from the other, or is reliant on funding from central or state government (or perhaps a healthy legacy or sizeable endowment) for one or both parts. The best students want to attend the universities conducting the best research. And by the best students I do not mean the most affluent or those with the most privileged education. I mean those who want, and have the greatest capacity, to learn and achieve. There are many different definitions of “best”.

Of course, some universities present themselves to the world as little more than finishing schools (or at least the contact book of their alumni network is their schtick to sections of the “market” with cash to burn). There are for sure some in Britain that in effect cater for the middle classes from the home counties, grasping at a meagre fibres of an international research reputation and putting up new library buildings; less Norman Foster, more Norma Desmond. But the best ones, and that includes institutions across the spectrum of old and new universities, recognise they have a role. Whether it is training, education or research, good institutions prioritise service to the community in a multitude of different ways; well-functioning and well-led institutions know what they are for. And like other national institutions – church, judiciary, Joanna Lumley  – whatever their shortcomings, or (in the case of the latter, however much you suspect that on reflection you’d probably not want to know their political views), they contribute essential thread to the fabric of any society.

In contrast, many poorly functioning or dysfunctional institutions have forgotten that role. They assume other roles – business, league table winners, and the servants of funding councils, journal editors, corporate donors and the applicant “market”.

So universities are for research and education but much more importantly for something more than just those.  And that is why it is essential to understand that assessments of university’s “impacts”, whether they are in terms of applying research findings to public goods or commercial gain or educating a generation of new workers, are misguided and doomed to fail.  Do we assess the impact of the Church, the judiciary, Joanna Lumley? Not in how far they contribute to a nation’s economic bottom line. Their value lies in being part of the fabric of a progressive society. In that regard, if life just is then Universities just are.

And who ever truly knows what the future holds? Universities’ impact is best achieved not only in trying to anticipate the future and chasing the causes, goals and objectives set by others but in shaping the agenda. It lies in making a case for the problems to solve as well as seeking to address those problems in creative and innovative ways. Academic impact, be it in education or research, is measured out in how far a society values knowledge and learning.

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