What is the purpose of a university?

What is the purpose of a university - event hosted by Pearson College London

Panellists such as Lord Willetts, former MP for universities, and Carl Lygo, a board member at the Office for Students and founding vice chancellor of BPP University, debated this topic last week at an event hosted by the Centre for Industry Engagement at Pearson College London.

On 17 April, an audience of academics and educationalists gathered to debate the purpose of a university. The hosting organisation, the Centre for Industry Engagement, aims to integrate industry and academia for the benefit of students, the academy and industry.

Meet the panellists

Further to Lord Willetts and Carl Lygo, the panel included:

  • Ben Hughes, the compere, who is a vice principal at Pearson College London for academic delivery, overseeing the student experience
  • Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group from 2007-2017
  • Dr Joanne Williams, author of "Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought" and "Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity"
  • Roxanne Stockwell, principal at Pearson College London, and a lifelong learner who has experienced multiple higher education institutions (HEIs) from a student perspective.

Guardians of reason vs. promoters of social change

The compere opened with two perspectives on the topic:

The purpose of a university is to be the guardian of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness, preserving pure inquiry from dominant public opinions.

And: the purpose of the university has changed to a focus on social mobility. University allows more people to transform their lives, if necessary, at the expense of some academic rigour.

These two views helped shaped the debate, which went on to touch on themes such as relationship to industry practice, socialisation and student wellbeing.

Why school leavers should go to university

Panelists began the debate by responding to the question: ‘Why should a school leaver go to university?’ Responses included the life transformation that university can provide, including to socio-economic outcomes and to health.

Many school leaver students experience independent living for the first time at university - this point was mentioned at various points in the debate, however, the campus experience is by no means universal even in the western world, as Roxanne Stockwell pointed out.

Other arguments for going to university included the opportunities to:

  • achieve higher order cognitive skills
  • attain an entrepreneurial mindset
  • enjoy more autonomy by comparison with working life
  • challenge prejudices 
  • the opportunity to enjoy diving deeply into a subject that you’re passionate about
  • the opportunity to create lifelong friendships

Joanne Williams flagged the distinction between learning solely by watching videos remotely and learning in the company of other students, stating that the latter is more beneficial. Wendy Piatt noted in her response that a school leaver should not assume that university is the only path.

Arguments against university as primary to social transformation included, the example of some international students from the same nation forming homogeneous social groups and therefore returning to their home nations without the benefit of improved English or wider social interaction. Vice chancellors are aware of and responsive to this issue, in Lord Willetts’ view.

Arguments against university as an essential coming of age experience included Roxanne Stockwell’s comment that if university is essential to coming of age, what about the around 55% in the UK who don’t attend university? As such, HE should not be considered necessarily formative. It was also mentioned that the inverse could be true, with university providing an extended adolescence where students did not take the same level of responsibility as they would in the working world.

An argument against going to university primarily for cognitive gains was made by Lord Willetts, who cited a US study showing that cognitive gains in university were not as high as expected.

University: a place to access HE content?

University is often considered as a source of content, particularly academic research. Carl Lygo argued that digital disruption should mean that higher education content comes to the student, rather than the student going to where the content is taught. He suggested that universities should make individual modules available for students to choose from and combine across different providers.

Joanna Williams contested that universities aren’t a content supermarket, but a community for discussing and debating information.

Universities are doing too much

Wendy Piatt suggested that universities are now expected to handle long lists of issues, and that, in this context, purpose could easily become confused and HEIs become vulnerable to being overstretched. Further to more traditional activities such as research and innovation, some universities are now expected to run schools, and to become embedded in their local communities as well as to be globally connected.

One thing all universities have in common

A lecturer at the university of Nottingham asked whether, given the diversity of HEIs, there is a shared purpose that characterises universities. The panel responded that universities had in common a relationship with knowledge, comprising:

  • a position at the frontier of knowledge 
  • a duty to pushing the boundaries of knowledge
  • a pursuit of knowledge, and
  • the dissemination of knowledge

Lord Willetts also added that universities are becoming more important and as such, more varied roles are put on them, such as driving the local economy. He noted that some functions are seen as more key than others, such as research, which affects funding.

An argument against this unifying idea was made by Carl Lygo, who suggested that there needed to be more differentiating factors between universities.

Do universities offer relevant pastoral support to students?

The debate returned again to the idea of university as a place for socialisation and growing up. Joanna Williams suggested that universities are socialising learners, particularly school leavers, without necessarily taking a deliberate approach to this role. Questions arose as to what is necessary for a university to facilitate a coming of age experience. A university was mentioned that played a therapeutic role in exam season, supplying colouring books, a petting zoo, and a destress teepee for massages.

It was suggested that universities should play this therapeutic role less because in some cases, the students who have difficult life circumstances do not come forward to use the university as a therapeutic resource.

A dean of faculty from Portsmouth commented that the suicide rate among students is higher than that of the wider population of the same age. He suggested that students’ time is constrained by working hours at jobs needed to support themselves, and that perhaps the support offered does not reflect the real lives of students.

Universities: public or private?

The context of a university's public or private status and how this affects its purpose was also touched upon. A question was raised as to how likely it is for universities to become private. Carl Lygo suggested that most public universities would regard themselves as private anyway, and pointed out that there is constitutional protection of HEIs as independent.

Does university mean theory and industry mean practice?

The panel was asked: Are academics in any position to demonstrate real life application when the academy is so remote from industry? Lord Willetts responded that the higher education system promotes theoretical and research based work. For example, journal publication on theoretical advances is more likely to get academics promoted than applying that theory in the local economy.

However, Roxanne Stockwell offered that students can have very good employability outcomes from non-vocational courses, which shows that all university programmes needn’t be specifically geared to industry practice.

Wendy Piatt suggested that HEIs are doing better at explaining the skills the students are picking up even from non-vocational degrees, such as critical thinking, and how these skills can be used in the working world.

The price of higher education vs. the value of knowledge

The idea of value - how students perceive the benefit of university - was raised at several points in the debate. Expectations of the benefits that university should offer students will likely shape students' idea of a university's purpose.

These perceptions of the value of the university experience is very much affected by the socio-economic context in which students study. The reality of the fees and costs of university, and of timetabling shift work or a full time job with studying could constrain the resources left over for students to access the social, transformative and philosophical aspects of the university experience.

This debate was a wonderful opportunity to open up several key questions, and felt like the beginning of a longer discussion, in which the student voice should be central.

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About the author 

Chimaechi Allan is passionate about education for social mobility, and manages content marketing for the higher education division at Pearson.