What’s in a name – how much does the word “university” matter?

Oxford and Cambridge, with their medieval foundations, photogenic colleges, ample wine cellars and large endowments, are held up as the archetypical universities. Their graduates go from PPE to PR to PM.

Their professors don’t want to be told what to teach or how to teach by despicable managers who are eating up the budgets that should be spent on the academics. Government calls for value-for-money cause academics in these distinguished institutions to decry the “marketisation” of universities.

Meanwhile, here on the east side of Birmingham, students from ethnic minority backgrounds who are the first in their families to obtain higher education want to use a degree to get a job. And it is not only students from the east side of Birmingham who seek a degree that will get them a good job. Nationwide, employers complain that the graduates they employ have insufficient workplace and client-handling skills, notwithstanding their technical knowledge.

It is not more or less meritorious to teach Roman and Greek literature and history than to prepare students to work in managing the global supply chain of the automobile industry. But it is not the same thing. These are different forms of Higher Education. You could, of course, start with the Classics and later use an MBA to switch into the supply chain.

Missed opportunities

We have done ourselves a great disservice to use the term “university” to label (almost) all the institutions that offer higher education. A title is not just a word. It implies, in the words of an invitation I recently received to attend a conference, “an institution’s core mission”. In the US, I received a degree from an institution that called itself a university, but few would be ashamed to say that they graduated from MIT or CalTech (both “Institutes of Technology”, a name in vogue this side of the Atlantic) or Wellesley College. In Germany there is a class of technical universities that proudly educate the leaders of industry and society.

In the UK, it wasn’t just the transformation of polytechnics from 1992 which proliferated the title of university. Aston University’s predecessor institution was the Birmingham College of Advanced Technology; it’s peers in Bristol (University of Bath), Battersea (University of Surrey) and elsewhere have similarly retained their strong links to industry and technology, while developing as universities from the 1960s. The outliers – particularly the schools and colleges of the University of London – have managed to survive the trend, though in most cases their brands are already so cemented in the international student and academic consciousness not to need to be formally called universities.

Were any individual institution to aim to adopt a name without “university”, they’d almost certainly suffer as a result. Potential students will see it as the odd one out. Faculty will not want to say that they don’t work at a university but only at a “technical institution” or the equivalent. This is one of those situations where only collective action can change things. Individual initiative by an institution would perhaps work if the institution in question were truly world famous, so carrying sufficient brand cachet to satisfy both faculty and students, however it renamed itself.

Aspirant institutions

There is a wide diversity in higher education provision in the UK. But here, the non-Russell-Group universities have Russell Group envy and the non-Oxbridge-Russell-Group have Oxbridge envy and so the entire higher education system tries to model itself on two institutions with a relatively small number of academics that take in a few thousand select students. And with resources established centuries ago that other institutions simply can’t replicate.

Students, the economy and society would be better served with a range of institutions – with the use of a better range of titles – that focussed on the broad diversity of motivations and benefits of higher education. If changing names isn’t viable – university title so cemented as not so much a “gold standard” but simply the only standard – then there needs to be a more open recognition of the different missions for universities.

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6 responses to “What’s in a name – how much does the word “university” matter?

  1. These are excellent points. The problem is a little bit like the joke about when a tourist asks a local how to get to some destination; after some thought the local replies “well, if I wanted to get to there I wouldn’t start from here”. Having cast the dye of labelling everything as a University means that relabelling institutions to more apposite titles will probably enforce the hierarchy that lie in people’s imaginations. Hence, I suspect the University label will stay. That doesn’t mean we can’t still also use the titling of the past. The trick is making sure that those titles mean something from a legislative/funding perspective such as what you mentioned in Germany or Switzerland.

  2. An university is an institution where young aspirants get the first taste of a much wider spectrum. University education does have an effect on self ego but that is not all. One’s vision is much enlarged. He learns to appreciate other people’s views. Having said that let us admit education must help a man’s career. So practical orientation is a must if the university intends to impart such knowledge which helps a man to enhance his career post his university education.

  3. I am not sure what the point is here. The term university is a useful shorthand to people unfamiliar with an institution to understand that it offers degrees. The big change is that the internet, league tables and various Government initiatives have given students, parents and recruitment agents much more information than before to make choices. So the term ‘university’ is not enough. I think that smart institutions make every effort to differentiate themselves from ‘Oxbridge’ -often by emphasising the employment-related added value in the degree courses offered. You only have to look at those who have been successful in international recruitment in recent years – Coventry and DMU – compared to those that have struggled, including Newcastle and Nottingham, to see that this approach works. I also think it is misguided to suggest that successful universities necessarily have a desire to join the Russell Group – why would you want to be in a club where several members would consider you below the salt?

  4. There is a difference in terminology from the USA to UK.

    In the USA one definition of “college” is a post secondary institution that grant degrees. As noted in the article Wellesley College, MIT, Cal Tech, Williams College are all world class institutions granting degrees and do not have university in the name.

    Further another distinction in USA and UK English is that one definition of “school” in the USA is the generic term for all educational institutions including kindergarten, primary, school, universities, et al.

    To further add to the confusion all of the following mean very different things in the USA and UK: public school, grammar school, prep school and others.

    One last thing of interest: when Aston was a CAT the City of Birmingham funded more per student than in the period immediately after it became a university when the national government funding per student was significantly less.

  5. The original universities started as places to study the Classics, Philosophy and Divinity. The word university used was to show that every new idea could be discussed and nothing taboo as long as the speaker gave a reasonable and rational argument for the point that they were making. In the Politically Correct age in which we live all universities are under threat of silencing new ideas and thoughts however well reasoned or argued. As Aston does not have a Faculty of Divinity or Humanities you probably don’t feel the pressure that other subjects suffer on this front. Students – and Professors – are branded as narrow minded or bigoted without the opportunity to defend the long tradition in which they stand and the reasons for expressing a particular view. Keep the word university and keep Freedom of Speech.

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