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Last Updated: Friday, 6 June, 2003, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
What are universities for?
By Steven Schwartz
Vice-chancellor of Brunel University and chair of the government taskforce on fair admissions

Is research an essential ingredient of a university?

According to the UK government, the answer is no. According to the Magna Charta for European Universities, the answer is yes.

Whoever is correct, it now seems inevitable that many teaching-led colleges will gain university status.

Teaching and research in universities must be inseparable if their tuition is not to lag behind changing needs, the demands of society, and advances in scientific knowledge
Magna Charta of the European Universities

The Labour government is making a huge effort to change the current higher education system, which is to be applauded.

For too long now, the sector has been consistently overworked and under-funded - and yet somehow still produced a high level of teaching and research.

However, this news does raise the question of what a university is - and what it is for.

This is a debate that the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, is currently trying to stimulate: the idea of the university, why it exists and what it should stand for, is rarely given editorial space.

'Brave move'

Current discussions of universities tend to focus on their situation in terms of economics, hierarchy, and history - a mirror of the values of British society.

It is a brave move from Mr Clarke, and it is the right one: it is time we moved from economics and gained a clear idea of the social goals of higher education.

Steven Schwartz
We also need to understand how we can get our universities to articulate their moral purpose
Steven Schwartz

The "medieval concept" of universities, mentioned by Mr Clarke in a recent speech, provided a clear moral purpose, allied to religion. However, since the decline of western religion over the last 100 years, we are left with a moral void.

Of course universities confer certain economic benefits to those who attend - and so to the nation as a whole. The generally accepted figure is that, during their working life, graduates stand to gain 400,000 more than non-graduates.

However, we should guard against this as a mathematical formula for costing university attendance - there is more to higher education than simply getting a job.

The benefits that educated citizens bring to society are wide ranging and of paramount importance.

What are these benefits? Graduates not only boost the economy, but they also make up the backbone of the country's social structure. The legal, medical and teaching professions form the necessary core of our society, and the work of scientists and researchers has world-reaching impact. All of these are direct benefits of a university education.

Social impact

Indirectly, too, universities have much to offer. They provide cultural stimulus (plays, concerts, art exhibitions), counselling and consumer advice and consultation, along with many other public services.

Through their participation in committees and interaction in groups, students acquire vital skills such as tolerance, freedom of expression and responsible citizenship.

The philosophy of individuality, cosmopolitanism and social responsibility that is integral to higher education, is transmitted through the behaviour of graduates, affecting even those who did not attend university.

Some academics believe that the recent news will lower standards; others argue that current situation is biased towards a social elite and needs updating.

There are good arguments on both sides.

But one argument that has not been made is that widening participation raises the level of society - both directly and indirectly. Exposure to higher education also means exposure to liberal social attitudes about the value of individuals.

Of course we need to debate what constitutes a university in terms of teaching and research.

But we also need to understand how we can get our universities to articulate their moral purpose.

There is no easy answer to the question. Yet we should not give up just because the challenges are great.

If the university of the future fails to confront its own moral values and purposes, it will simply waste quietly away, leaving the victory to the shallow utilitarianism of "education providers".

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