Today The Guardian asks the question, what are universities for?
In the course of the article we see the usual dichotomy emerge between the traditional view of ‘learning for learning’s sake’ in which universities are positioned as guardians of knowledge and ‘institutions committed to deepening human understanding’ and the ‘marketised’ view of universities as contributing to public economic growth and preparing students for employment. Cambridge don Professor Stefan Collini is quoted in defence of the first view, with Carl Lygo, chief executive of BPP espousing the second. Lygo suggests that the fact that more students from his kind of background (he was the first in his family to attend university, and was eligible for free school meals) means that universities have become more utilitarian in their understanding of their purpose.
It is tempting to suggest that one of the primary purposes of a university education is to develop the capacity to dismantle the false dichotomies so beloved of journalists.Without wishing to impugn the profession or indeed, suggest that either Collini’s or Lygo’s viewpoint as one-sided as this article seems to imply, where in this ‘debate’ is the acknowledgement that learning does not stop at the completion of a university degree?
That universities prepare students yes, for jobs, but for jobs that are intellectually challenging, infinitely variable and that require constant critical engagement with the world around us? Yes, our universities teach students how to think for themselves – but independent thought alone has no intrinsic value to the individual or to society.
University teaches students how to both think and to translate that thought into action in conversation, an essay, a project, a mechanical invention, an artistic creation, a political campaign or a business idea. The sheer pleasure of completing a project, making a contribution, helping other people to understand, takes place in all walks of life not just in universities, but it is through going to university that many of us begin to understand and practice this. To acknowledge the rich variety of career prospects – in the professions, in self-employment, in business and in the public and private sectors – available to university graduates in today’s knowledge economy is not to render universities utilitarian in purpose. Instead it is to understand how universities enable graduates to embark on careers where you get to use the brain you have worked so hard to develop.