The no-longer-acceptable idea of a university

In this morning’s Australian my friend Simon Caterson writes about the Catholic Church’s beatification of John Henry Newman.

Outside Catholic circles (if not within them), Newman is most famous for his 1852 book The Idea of a University. It is perhaps the most cited book ever on higher education.

Ironically, an institution fulfulling Newman’s idea of university devoted to teaching and the development of character, with research and vocational training done elsewhere, would not be allowed to call itself a university in Australia. The protocols on recognition of higher education institutions agreed by all governments in Australia require a ‘university’ to conduct research.

John Henry Newman’s idea of a university, RIP.

14 thoughts on “The no-longer-acceptable idea of a university

  1. What’s wrong with a university having to do research? I don’t really care if the government enforces its definition, but for the degrees that matter i.e. your foundation undergraduate degree for example*, I’d probably seek an institution that did research whether my degree involved research or not. I would expect it to offer a broader, holistic experience.

    I would be sceptical of a university that assigned itself the charter of ‘teaching and the development of character’. Teaching does not necessarily imply all the facets of university learning and I’ll develop my own character!


    *in contrast to a profressional degree where you are just seeking specific skills and interaction with other people in that business, eg Master of Project Management. That could come from a ‘training’ type institution, although I imagine things like business schools would only ever be leaders in their field if they did research.


  2. Michael – Sure, you and many others would seek out a uni that did research. But why impose that requirement on everyone.

    My post is a little misleading in the sense that while all new universities must have minimum levels of research, the rules have not yet been applied to existing unis, some of which would struggle to meet the requirements, or to particular faculties or departments – many of which have minimal research output despite being in a uni that does otherwise meet the requirements.

    So revealed preference of student applications suggests that the absence of research output or reputation is not a major concern for many students.


  3. Quite right too. If a university is a community of scholars that implies that research is being undertaken by the faculty.


  4. Sinc – I would agree that universities (or more precisely their academic staff) need to be involved in scholarship, which involves a good understanding of the research in their field. It does not however require research activity by individual scholars.


  5. Andrew, I don’t really think it should be imposed on everyone. All I’m saying is I reckon there’s a really high chance that any ‘university devoted to teaching and the development of character, with research and vocational training done elsewhere’ would probably be crap.

    I guess I should have just said that (….but no one would take me seriously!).


  6. Admittedly they mostly call themselves colleges, but the liberal arts colleges in the US generally offer a superior non-vocational undergaduate education to just about any other set of institutions in the world, despite research not typically being a requirement on staff.


  7. “liberal arts colleges in the US … despite research not typically being a requirement on staff.”

    WADR, Andrew, this is rubbish. Research is most certainly required of the faculty in the liberal arts colleges, and they have no hope of getting tenure without a CV full of research publications. Where they differ from universities is in not having PhD students.


  8. S of R – Yes, you are right that particularly at the higher-prestige liberal arts colleges there is respectable research ouptut.


  9. “Sure, you and many others would seek out a uni that did research.”
    It’s not just what individual students want, it’s employers also. As long as employers want something, whether fair or not fair on the student, then that will lead to students doing it because they feel obliged to, not because it is necessary. For many degrees, having some staff that are research active is hopefully enough to keep subjects up to date, and not having stuff rehashed from decades ago.
    It’s not just research, it’s also things like the amount of time it takes to get the degree. Things like the Melbourne model and post graduate Masters degrees also fall into this category. If these become the expectation of employers because students graduate from them with higher skill levels than just degrees, then that will lead to employers employing graduates of those programs over others, and so there will be strong pressure on other universities and students to follow in that type of model.


  10. Conrad – Except that we are still to empirically establish a Group of Eight salary premium. It’s a plausible hypothesis, and the very high fee premiums they can command suggest that students believe it is true (or are happy to pay for whatever other benefits they believe they will receive), but not an established fact.

    The reality is that even at a research uni most people who teach you will not be research active in your subject – most of them will be casual tutors who are a week ahead of you with the reading (though will usually have studied the same broad field of study) and the lecturers in the big vocational degrees will teach a fairly standard curriculum that meets professional admissions standard requirements – almost by definition, not cutting edge research.

    For students who plan to do Honours or other further study I would suggest a research uni. For someone who just wants the basics in a deregulated market I would suggest they think twice before paying a Group of Eight premium fee.


  11. Andrew – I don’t think people should (necessarily) teach their research to there own students (undergraduate especially); being research active usually correlates with being intellectually curious and up-to-date whereas non-research academics are more likely to stagnate. So I don’t think the relationship between teaching and research is as clear cut as you suggest (and I’m not surprised that little evidence exists to support the relationship you imply).


  12. “Except that we are still to empirically establish a Group of Eight salary premium”
    I don’t doubt that, but, at present, most universities are fairly homogenous in terms of most people doing at least some research, so that isn’t so surprising. It also isn’t just who you are being taught by incidentally — the person that sets the course, gets equipment for the course etc. is basically the one that determines whether the courses are up to date or not.


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