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.
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.
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.