The Case for Universities

The Case for Universities

Published September 1996


This paper presents the case for Universities as institutions which by fostering a tradition of scholarship provide knowledge and expertise for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole and are major contributors through research and innovation to the economic competitiveness and quality of life in the nation. Universities have a key role in supplying qualified manpower important for the economy and essential to the national health service and the education service.

We emphasize the special role of Universities as the principal institutions in which the formulation and testing of ideas independent of immediate applications can be carried out. We state the case for a broad view of knowledge and for a range of intellectual enquiry that includes many varieties of research and scholarship and the generation of new disciplines.

We argue that Universities are most useful to society by being true to their unique values and methods. Wider access to University education is welcomed and new opportunities in the dissemination of knowledge and developments in educational methodology are discussed. Attention is drawn to the changing patterns of undergraduate education and the importance of the European dimension.

We urge that the unique contribution of Universities to national life be recognized by financial provision which enables teaching, research and scholarship to be pursued at the highest level.


1. Introduction

This paper considers the particular place and value of British universities, a subject which has engaged the attention of many people in the past and which has produced some classic statements. Our concern is to view universities from the perspective of their professoriates. It is they who are appointed to exercise academic leadership. More than any other group they are the custodians of the values of University education.

To many knowledgeable foreign academics, it would seem surprising that British professors find it necessary to defend or explain their position. Our universities have undergone many radical changes in the last fifteen years, some of them of more value to the Treasury than to the advancement and transmission of knowledge. Despite the fact that in recent years they have admitted greatly increased numbers and thus opened up educational opportunity to many more students, British universities strive to remain among the leaders in academic excellence. Even now, with their expanded student numbers and severely reduced funds, they seek to provide interactive teaching and counselling for students and, in spite of the very high fees required by the removal of subsidy, many of our universities remain institutions to which able students from overseas wish to come. British universities have provided the starting points for many fine institutions in Commonwealth countries, a debt which is now being repaid by scholarly interchange. In spite of these achievements British universities are currently under threat and their value needs to be re-emphasised.

Our case is that the fundamental idea of a University is the disinterested pursuit and transmission of knowledge. This idea has ancient roots, though it has evolved recently in ways that classical institutions would hardly recognize. But however many subjects and activities are encompassed in the modern university, its work should be distinguished by being open to new developments and a willingness to initiate them and share them with others.

Universities perform a wide variety of educational functions including high level training and providing the manpower needs of the “expert society”, but they are special because they exist for the purposes of generation, accumulation and transmission of knowledge. By “knowledge” we mean an integrated, verifiable, and rational interpretation of the world, subject to constant re-evaluation, criticism and scrutiny. It is advanced by research and scholarship which entail free enquiry, intellectual honesty and toleration of diverse viewpoints which is the justification for academic freedom. It is extended and interpreted by teaching, and preserved and diffused by publication. The universities serve a unique role as guardians of the knowledge which is the kernel of civilization. This contribution stands in its own right as essential to the maintenance of a civilized community. It need not conflict with the social functions of universities in increasing economic expectations, generating a professional workforce, and helping to produce an innovative cohort of intellectual leaders. Although Lord Davey, chairman of the commission charged with making statutes for the University of London in 1898, doubted ‘whether the two objects – culture and professional training – can be carried on concurrently in a university’ Haldane argued that the pattern of curricula should both provide culture and apply scientific and other forms of knowledge to practical life. This duality had been preached by Matthew Arnold thirty years before and was later to be advocated by Lyon Playfair, T.H. Huxley and Henry Roscoe(2).

The value of these functions (as well as the short-term effect on unemployment figures) has generally been acknowledged in the Government’s expansion of higher education. But unless the unique value of universities as sources of knowledge is adequately taken into account, the recent expansion in the university system in the U.K. will have been a futile and bogus exercise which may damage the very fabric of the university system.

So we make our case unapologetically, but conscious of the fact that changes have been so momentous that our basic functions and the work that we do may become obfuscated by the immediate pressing concerns of student numbers and costs.


2. The Functions of Universities

We take higher education to mean those forms of post-school study which take place in institutions staffed by people who are engaged in, or conversant with, the research and scholarship which are continually advancing the boundaries of knowledge. The special value to be placed on universities depends on what they do and what distinguishes them from other institutions.

Their main functions(3) may be characterised as follows:

  • pursuit of research and scholarship
  • high level specialised education and training
  • fulfilling the manpower needs of the ‘expert society’
  • performance of leadership roles in intellectual activities
  • provision of services to the region and immediate community
  • acting as a screening mechanism for entry to the professions
  • operating as an avenue for social mobility.

The aims of University education may be summarized as follows:

  • to generate a highly educated and trained population
  • to generate a population able to work and live together. The British universities’ concept of collegiality, and their strong pastoral systems, help to promulgate the ideal of a civilised society, able to settle dissent through democratic and rational means
  • to generate a society that reflects certain inherent moral values
  • to transmit a shared culture, expressed as a key aim by the Robbins Report(4). This is not in any way inconsistent with the ideal of cultural diversity
  • to preserve and transmit knowledge
  • to assist in spreading the benefits of informational and technological advances
  • to enable its graduates to play an active part in wealth creation of the nation
  • to generate a population skilled in the wide range of specialized activities necessary to sustain a complex society.

Some of these functions are also performed, if in quite different ways, by bodies other than universities. Industry performs much of its own research. Training is offered by a large range of people and institutions, including employers. Regional and community development is certainly not a task exclusive to universities. Nor is consultancy. Yet all of these are legitimately part of the range of university functions and are performed, in some cases, better by universities.

Both the functions and clienteles of universities have greatly widened from their original scope. They seek to make their usefulness more obvious to funders, and many institutions, particularly those needing to attract more students, are becoming more job-related in their offerings. Some parts at least of the system have admitted forms of knowledge transmission and enquiry that approximate more to training and consultancy than to higher education in its traditional and ‘essential’ form. We therefore believe it is necessary to restate the mandate of University education and redefine its boundaries. We consider the extent to which the essential nature of universities is characterised by certain assumptions and values.


3. The Distinctive Role of the Universities

The distinctive features of universities are, first, that they more than any other institutions are concerned with the production, certification and transmission of knowledge. Secondly, what is distinctive, and what creates the boundary between disciplined enquiry and other forms of knowledge generation, is that academic work is premised on an independent view of the evidence, for the logic, both internal and external, of a position and for its demonstrability in a forum where it can be criticised on both logic and evidence. Accordingly, university-based research is different from consultancy, where the objectives are set by the funder rather than the consultant, even if an academic consultant uses the accepted standards and methods of science to reach those objectives; the search for truth is not in that case ‘disinterested.’ Similarly, although serious journalism may rest on strong evidence it is not required to stand up to the rigorous tests applied to scholarship. University education is distinguishable from vocational training by virtue of the duty to initiate students into critical approaches to knowledge. Academics legitimately engage in consultancy, journalism or training, but these are not their core activities.

A further distinctive characteristic is the nature of the institutions in which university education takes place. Their academic staff should all be committed to the advancement of knowledge and its transmission. Some will be engaged in research, that is the discovery and testing of knowledge; others in scholarship, that is the critical collation and reordering of existing knowledge; others in applying and testing the fruits of research and scholarship. It was remarked recently by an Australian Vice-Chancellor(5) that ‘to be an academic is to be … an intellectual of a certain kind’. Arguing at a time when many non-research institutions in Australia were being allowed university status, he made the case for university teachers being involved in what Cronbach and Suppes(6) have described as ‘disciplined enquiry’. He regards the university as taking part in the advancement of human knowledge as well as being a communicator of it and a central actor in society. Research sustains the intellectual curiosity of academics: ‘There are arguments that we want to advance. There are hypotheses that we want to knock down .. We live in a world of ideas, and that means we have to contribute, not just borrow or recite.’(5).

These values are the criteria by which universities are judged. We have to stand up to review of the most public kind. This attitude is one which we communicate to students who, on graduation, will have to perform difficult tasks and to be accountable for them. It involves endorsement of intellectual integrity. This is also the reason why research is esteemed very highly in universities. It is difficult work, often pursued alone, but demanding complete accountability.

These goals are compatible with the making of a unique contribution to the economy and society. Research or disciplined enquiry must not only add to or clarify knowledge but also be capable of becoming part of the common stock. It entails the function of universities in disseminating and testing knowledge. This applies not only to the ‘productive’ parts of the economy and society. Our public services also need remodelling, and thorough and independent evaluation is required in terms of their value base, the needs they meet, and other outcomes in order to underpin the formulation of new structures and new professions to cope with new social and technical mandates.

But universities best engage in the active concerns of society and the economy by being true to their own methods and values. Their functions are quite different from, though fully capable of harmonizing with, those of government departments, and industry and commerce. Leading industrialists value universities because they can provide an independent perspective. By being true to our special functions we can be more rather than less helpful.


4. The Importance of Research and Scholarship

Universities are under pressure, and have been for some time, to undertake research that is likely to have a clear and rapid economic or social pay-off. But not all research and scholarship will lead to discernible pay-offs in the short term, in the sense of new and usable discoveries. Some research has a clear economic and social justification and that is rightly part of university activity as long as it is governed by the criteria that we have stated above. And there is the whole world of practice to which disciplined enquiry may be gainfully applied.

Universities are, however, virtually the only institutions in which ideas can be developed and tested which may have usefulness only through the operation of serendipity. We support the case for non-applicable knowledge, particularly to be found in the humanities, and for fundamental science, on the grounds that it is and should be part of the human aspiration to want to have a comprehensive knowledge of the natural world that we inhabit and to know and understand the thinking and mode of expression of civilisations and societies now long past. A collective memory is what distinguishes civilised societies from those that build aspirations on shallow demands from the immediate present. Moreover, the study of past literatures, languages and history involves the mastery of complex skills, which once acquired are transferable to other types of work. Good Arts graduates are successful in a wide range of careers unrelated to their particular subjects.


5. Varieties of Research

The range and eclecticism of university research and scholarship add to their value. Classic forms of research carry high esteem but giving witness to the true and relevant can take many different forms. Those engaged in scholarship rather than research often have high academic reputations for the critical reordering of existing knowledge and concepts. There is a wide spectrum of subjects which demand interpreters, through scholarship, through curriculum development and through writing advanced texts. These are all the more important as the student population becomes more diverse in character. To some extent the problem is not in producing research, but in organising and disseminating that production(7).

At any rate, university research and scholarship do not necessarily depend on the traditional academic disciplines. Much important knowledge does not start within a discipline but with a set of practical problems to be solved. There are ‘domains’ of knowledge(8) in which disciplines are recruited to solve problems but which acquire a structure of their own. They may then be subject to both academic and professional or user reference groups. Such areas as planning, education, social work and to a degree, engineering and medicine are of that kind. Again, however, the defining point for the universities is that they defer to the disciplinary criteria set out in Section 3 and that the objectives of study are not imposed from outside.

This means that the world of knowledge should use university teachers, partly to create new knowledge, but also to ensure that what we have is well tested, reordered and fully exploited. This will take place in part through teaching, but also in preparing texts for wider dissemination both in specialist publications and the more popular press, and in establishing networks with practitioners.

But this wide and demanding mandate means that universities must always be on guard for the maintenance of their standards. For this reason we question the incipient practice, to be found in some universities, of awarding professorial and other academic titles to those who have not demonstrated academic leadership in a chosen field. We are especially concerned about the appropriation of professorial title by non-academic administrators and institutional leaders.


6. Diversity and Wider Access

One aspect of the recent expansion of universities in Britain is the greater diversity among the institutions in the system. This is a welcome development; universities have become more accessible by promoting different modes of study, by encouraging students from non-traditional backgrounds, and by providing a wider range of courses. It is natural that some institutions should concentrate their efforts on particular sectors of demand. The existence of diversity need not and should not lead to a loss of the defining characteristics of a university, as outlined in Section 3. These are an openness to new knowledge (often combined with active research), critical and disinterested study, and the provision of teaching at an advanced level in the context of research and scholarship.

A major development in new modes of study occurred in 1969 with the foundation of the Open University, intended exclusively for part-time students and almost entirely for mature students. This demonstrated the potential of “distance learning”, which has been taken up by other universities. Most universities in large urban areas make provision for part-time students, and some also offer distance learning packages for students in remote areas and overseas students. This has been effective in widening opportunities for previously under-represented groups in higher education, such as people with family responsibilities and those who need to support themselves.

However there are still problems in encouraging wider access to higher education, in areas where it is not part of the traditional culture. The needs of a more varied intake have led to the development of various types of preparatory and access courses, for both part-time and full-time students. This is necessary if higher education is to be made available to all who are capable of benefiting from it. The preliminary courses are most effectively provided by further education colleges rather than by the universities themselves. This enables students who do not have the usual school background for higher education to proceed one step at a time, and to assess their interests and abilities before committing themselves to a particular degree course. It also allows the universities to give better informed advice to applicants on their ability to benefit from degree programmes.

The universities now offer a much wider choice of degree programmes than they did twenty or thirty years ago. At the time of the Robbins report(4) it was recognised that the expansion of student numbers should not occur mainly in specialist Honours courses, but that a larger proportion of students should follow broad programmes of study. Initially the breadth was introduced through the development of joint Honours degrees covering two specified subjects, but in the past few years most universities have moved towards modular course arrangements. These allow for more flexibility in degree programmes, usually with some “core” requirement to ensure that students reach a high level in at least one subject. The planning of modular courses is rather more complex than that of traditional Honours degrees, because the students taking a particular course unit do not have a common background. But the courses should still provide the elements of intellectual challenge and a critical approach to learning.

The greater flexibility which is now available in most universities is popular with students, because it allows for changes of interest during the three-year degree programme, and for a certain amount of tailoring to match particular career choices. As regards employers, a broader degree course is usually seen as an advantage, except of course for those jobs which have specific professional requirements. For the majority of graduate jobs in the U.K. the actual subject of the degree is not important; what is required is a certain educational level together with a capacity for independent work and general skills in analysis, communication, and the planning and carrying out of projects.

The changing pattern of degree provision has many positive aspects, but standards must be maintained. A modular degree may be based on course units taken in several departments, possibly over a number of years if the student is part-time. Thus the external examiner system, which is usually regarded as the mechanism for ensuring comparable standards between degree results, is less effective than for the subject-based Honours degree. The maintenance of common standards is important both for students and for employers, but we recognize that it may have to be implemented in different ways in the future. The validation of degrees will be concerned more with a good design of course units and a well-structured programme, and less with the performance in a single Final examination. This evolution should not be seen as a lowering of standards, but rather as the emergence of a different type of standard.

However, the question of standards also has to be considered in the context of European practice. If our graduates are to be recognized as equivalent to graduates from other European countries, we cannot diversify our practice too far from accepted international norms in higher education. University expansion is taking place throughout Europe, and the problems of “breadth versus depth” are common to most countries. But there is a widespread view that an education to degree standard is partly a process of acquiring intellectual maturity, and that this process cannot be accelerated without loss. The provision of two-year degree courses in Britain is of doubtful value. In addition they are unlikely to confer graduate status in the European job market. Indeed in scientific and technical areas there has been a move towards four-year degrees for those who want to use the subjects professionally, partly in order to ensure European recognition. This raises the whole question of the funding of university education, which will be considered in the next section.


7. Planning and Resources for Universities

The question of planning and funding for higher education has assumed considerable political importance because of the great expansion of the system. There is a need to support all levels of education, and we recognize that it is not feasible to fund the university sector on the scale that it was funded 30 years ago, when it was very much smaller. But we believe that the general value of university education to society warrants a substantial level of public expenditure. This can be regarded as an investment in human resources in order to prepare for future developments which cannot be predicted in detail. What is certain is that a good level of general education will provide a flexible and adaptable basis for the changing demands of society and the economy. The arguments advanced earlier for universities in an atmosphere of openness to new knowledge have great practical relevance to a world in which career changes are likely to be common throughout the population and throughout an individual’s working life.

We do not propose to cover all aspects of the current debate on funding. The provision of grants or loans for students, the introduction of a graduate tax, and schemes for “learning vouchers” have all been under discussion recently, and we need not repeat the arguments. As regards student funding, our main concern is that wider access should be maintained, particularly for groups which were previously under-represented. We also believe (see Section 6) that reducing the length of degree courses is likely to be a false economy, if the outcome is that the degrees awarded in the U.K. are not recognized internationally.

As regards the funding of universities, certain points can be made on the basis of their distinctive character. First, the quality of teaching in British universities has been generally regarded as high, as measured by the standards achieved, the low failure rates, and the effective use of the students’ time. But staffing levels are not being maintained, which is placing all this at risk. In some countries the university system has very low staff/student ratios, but the price paid is a large drop-out rate and long degree courses. If we are to maintain an efficient system in Britain, with well-structured courses and with support for individual students, we need adequate staffing. A national review of staffing requirements and remuneration over the next few years is now essential. The wave of expansion which followed the Robbins report led to a somewhat unbalanced age profile among academic staff. This is now less evident, and a recent HEFCE report(9) has concluded that there are no immediate problems across the sector as a whole. However the position varies between subjects, and in some areas recruitment of new staff should be started immediately by making supernumerary appointments of able young people on research and teaching contracts, so that there is a pool of suitable candidates for long-term posts. It would be timely for all institutions to assess their needs over the next ten years with a view to creating a national plan for selective investment.

Secondly, it is essential to sustain the character of universities by providing resources for research, scholarship and teaching. One important factor here is the need to support libraries adequately and also to enable them to use modern technology to the best advantage. Another is the need to maintain the infrastructure of laboratories and equipment for work in the sciences. The present tendency is towards selective and short-term research grants; we can see the reasons for this, but it is not an economical use of resources if the basic laboratory and technical facilities are not maintained at a good level. Clearly it is not possible to support a large number of expensive laboratories in highly specialized areas, and there is scope for regional collaboration over facilities for research and teaching and access to libraries. At present the levels of funding for both teaching and research are being cut every year, and universities are finding it difficult to provide enough resources for research students and younger members of staff to establish themselves in their research work.

Thirdly, the universities in many parts of the country provide cultural and scientific services to the community at large. This is achieved through public lectures, extra-mural courses, museums and research collections, and musical and artistic activities. Although these are not the primary functions of a university, they provide opportunities for making the advanced work of the academic staff known to the wider public. The cost is relatively small, but the present system of “formula funding” tends to discourage any activity outside the narrowest definition of requirements. Consequently the resources of the universities are being turned inwards and not used to the best advantage in their localities. At one time universities received modest grants from the local authorities in their areas; this may not be practical politics at the moment, but some form of local support could be very effective in maintaining mutually beneficial links.


8. Conclusions

This document defines the special value of universities. This definition is based on a consideration of the general functions of universities in relation to the economy and society and on the distinctive roles of universities (a) in the production and transmission of knowledge; (b) in the tradition of disciplined enquiry giving witness to the truth and (c) as collegial institutions supporting the advancement of knowledge through intellectual curiosity.

Universities are the only institutions where ideas, the usefulness of which is not directly evident, can be tested and where the objectives of study have not been imposed from outside and are not subject to pragmatic criteria. We state the case for non-applicable knowledge and for a range of intellectual enquiry that includes many varieties of research and scholarship, including the generation of new disciplines. We argue that universities are most useful to society by being true to their unique values and methods.

We welcome wider access to university education and discuss various developments in the methods of delivery and new opportunities in the dissemination of knowledge. We draw attention to the changing patterns of undergraduate education and the importance of the European dimension.

Finally, we discuss the need to provide adequate resources to enable universities to carry out their important mandate, in particular the need for adequate staffing and support for libraries and other facilities. We urge that the value of the contribution of universities to national life be recognized by the provision of resources which enable teaching, research and scholarship to achieve their proper level.

Notes and References

  1. This paper was inspired by the educational ideals of Brooke Benjamin, our founding Chairman, whose humane vision of the role of the University informed and guided the early development of NCUP.
  2. Ashby E and Anderson M (1974) Portrait of Haldane at Work on Education, Macmillan.
  3. OECD (1987) Universities Under Scrutiny, OECD Paris.
  4. Robbins Report (1963) Higher Education Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the chairmanship of Lord Robbins, 1961-1963, Cmd 2154, HMSO.
  5. Aitken D (1991) “The Subtle Links between Teaching and Research” Symposium on the Quality of Teaching in Higher Education Institutions, Canberra.
  6. Cronbach LJ and Suppes P (1969) (eds) Tomorrow’s Schools: Disciplined Inquiry for Education, Macmillan.
  7. Aitken D (1991) “How Research came to dominate Higher Education and what ought to be done about it” Oxford Review of Education, Vol.17, No.3, 1991.
  8. Trist E (1972) “Types of output mix of research organizations and their complementarity” in A.B. Cherns et al. Social Science and Government. Policies and Problems, Tavistock Publications.
  9. HEFCE Report (1995) The Age Distribution of Academic Staff. 3/95. HEFCE, Bristol.


This document is approved for unrestricted circulation. Criticism or commentary will be welcome from any reader.  Responses should be addressed to the NCUP Secretariat, School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 219, Reading, RG7 3XH