In Newman’s footsteps

One of the many inevitabilities of higher education policy discussion is that, sooner or later, someone will raise the question of what universities are actually for. So inevitable is this phenomenon, in fact, that I’ve seen it mooted that it be named Newman’s Law, after John Henry Newman, who famously asked this question back in 1852. But in trying to give a definitive answer, I think we’re missing a trick. Because there is no single answer. Rather, there are many. And they are all equally valid.

Newman came to the conclusion that the ‘ideal’ university is a community of thinkers, engaged in intellectual pursuits for their own sake, rather than to any particular end. He also felt that students should be given a broad grounding in all areas of study, fearing that narrow specialisation would lead to narrow minds.

While our universities have moved on a bit since 1852, Newman’s arguments still cast a shadow over the higher education sector. Any institution that does not have a strong research base, or that does not teach the full range of academic subjects, is seen somehow as less worthy than those that do. And those that seek to provide a more vocational education are – let’s be honest – viewed at times with something approaching disdain.

Take, for example, the ongoing public and media fascination with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Or the primacy of the self-styled Russell Group of leading UK universities. These are all great institutions, to be sure, but they are only ‘elite’ in the traditional, Newman sense. And yet we take them as the ideal against which all other universities are measured.

By all means, if your interests lie in a ‘traditional’ discipline, you could do much worse than Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Exeter, Glasgow, Imperial, Nottingham, Warwick or one of the other members of the Russell Group. But if your interests lie in a more specialist field (sorry, Newman!), you may do better looking elsewhere. For marine biology, for example, don’t forget Plymouth. For astronomy, try Liverpool John Moores. And for the creative arts, take a look at LIPA, Rose Bruford or the UCA.

And it’s not just about the subjects on offer. Because there is much more that makes a university what it is. If it’s a close-knit campus you’re after, try Keele or Royal Holloway. If a traditional three-year, full-time degree doesn’t appeal to you, you might wish to consider the Open University, Anglia Ruskin or UWE. If you want to get work experience while you study, think about Chester or Solent. And if you care to indulge your love of the great outdoors, then Cumbria, Bangor or Falmouth might well be for you.

There is, in my view, no one answer to the question of what universities are for. Rather, it is for individual universities to decide what they want to be ‘for’, and to then get on and do that to the very best of their abilities.

If a university wants to strive for the Newmanesque ideal, that’s fine with me. But if others want to focus on teaching specific subjects, providing outstanding pastoral support, engaging with local employers, creating a great campus, being a hub within their town or city, undertaking high-impact research, creating economic growth, engaging with members of the public, offering flexible study opportunities, mixing classroom-based learning with real-life work exprience, turning out graduates with outstanding people skills or simply being in a lovely part of the world, I’m OK with that, too.

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