GLOBAL: What is a university?

Universities are big places and it is easy to lose your way. We have taken to placing maps at strategic locations to help people navigate their way around. I recall a California university president describing how one map was the victim of graffiti. Right under the orientation arrow and the words "You are here", someone had written "But, why?" Universities are also wondering why they are here.

I would like to tell you about one that knows. As you drive to Chicago from the airport, you pass a university which will soon celebrate its 50th birthday. It is pretty impressive [with] modern low-rise buildings, lecture theatres and state-of-the-art computing facilities.

The university employs professors from many different countries and it has a branch campus in Hong Kong. It also plays host to a large number of international students -so many, in fact, that it translates its lectures into 28 different languages.

The courses offered by the university are focused on business. In fact, they are focused on a single business - running restaurants. Students learn how to organise and motivate staff, manage accounts and how to scale up a business to make it grow.

The American Council on Education recognises the university's courses as eligible for tertiary credit. If you haven't already guessed it, the name of this university is Hamburger University and it is the management training facility for the McDonald's restaurant chain.

"Hamburger University"; sounds ridiculous doesn't it? No one would ever confuse it with a real university. But why not - how does it differ from a real university? One difference is the narrowness of its curriculum: Hamburger U's curriculum is limited to business and management courses.
In contrast, most modern universities are what Clark Kerr, the doyen of American University presidents, called multiversities - institutions that bring together many different disciplines. But there are exceptions: many well-respected universities in America and Europe are highly specialised - law universities, medical universities and engineering universities.

So an educational institution can still be a legitimate university even with a narrow curriculum. If it's not the diversity of their courses, what makes our universities different from Hamburger U?
At one time, we could say, most Australian universities were public bodies, contrasting this with Hamburger University's private ownership. But this distinction no longer works. Notre Dame, Bond and Carnegie Mellon are all private, not to mention, Harvard, Stanford and Yale, yet no one disputes they are all universities.

So, why isn't Hamburger U a real university? One place to look for the answer to this question is in research. Universities seek truth: their aim is to discover, preserve and disseminate knowledge. Hamburger U does this too. For example, it discovers and preserves knowledge about how to cook consistently great chips.

But, let's be honest, Hamburger's academics are not high-flying researchers - unlike our university academics, who are all scholars. This is what we would like to believe but is it really true? Thousands of academics are teaching in Australian universities - are they all scholars conducting research? [No], many Australian academics are no more active than the staff of Hamburger U.

It may be a minority pursuit but groundbreaking research is taking place in Australia - and not only in universities. There is no doubt that our academics do more and better research than the staff of Hamburger U. But how can research be the unique defining characteristic of universities when many academics don't do any and when excellent research is found outside universities?

Perhaps it is not research in general, but a particular type of research that defines universities. Because we seek to discover and disseminate the truth, university research is driven by curiosity and the findings are shared freely with scholars around the world. This is clearly not true of Hamburger U: it is not interested in blue sky research and there is no chance it will share its recipe for chips.
But here again, times change. According to Robert Dynes, president of that mighty research colossus, the University of California, curiosity-driven research is an outdated concept. To quote Dynes, "We're not here to do the stereotypical Ivory Tower, navel-gazing, 'curiosity-driven' research. That is not what a modern public research university ... is all about."

So, what is the modern public research university about? Industry-relevant research, of course. And don't worry about sharing the findings: in this day of patents and confidentiality agreements, it is routine to keep research results confidential. As Cicero would have said: "O tempora, O mores".
Still, we think our universities are different from Hamburger U. But how? To quote Clark Kerr again, a university is "a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over car parking".

Even this point of difference doesn't work, as Hamburger U is short of car parking too. Perhaps I am going about this from the wrong direction. A university is not defined by its campus, its range of courses, its ownership or even its research. What is important is what it teaches and what its students learn. Hamburger University is a vocational enterprise; it teaches job-related skills. Perhaps this is where it differs from our real universities?

John Cardinal Newman, whose century old description of an ideal university continues to thrill members of senior common rooms, was adamantly against vocational courses (and research, for that matter). Newman described "practical knowledge" as "a deal of trash". He thought that medicine was too applied to be taught at a real university.

For him, universities were enclaves, separate from the everyday world; places where students and academics engaged in platonic dialogues and where the outcome for both was a deeper understanding of the world and their place in it. Much has changed. Today, employers, taxpayers and politicians all want universities to prepare students for jobs.

Australian universities have certainly taken up the challenge: the diploma in event management, the bachelor of applied science in naturopathy and the bachelor of arts in advertising are clearly not what Cardinal Newman had in mind when he called for an education that "apprehends the great outline of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little"

We claim that our courses supply students with high level communication and problem solving skills but when it comes right down to it, it is difficult to see any real difference between the bachelor of arts in catering management offered by an Australian university and the curriculum offered by Hamburger U.

So, where does this leave us? Let's sum up. Hamburger U has a campus, lecture theatres and logo-emblazoned sweatshirts. It has students from around the world and an Asian campus. Its courses are recognised and its professors are experts in their fields. Its academics don't do much scholarly research but many Australian academics don't do much either.

Hamburger U is private and offers a narrow curriculum but a growing proportion of higher education is also provided privately and some universities offer a curriculum even narrower than that offered by Hamburger U; its courses are vocational but not any more vocational than many courses offered by Australian universities.

It is self-evident Hamburger University is not a real university - they themselves would agree - yet there does not seem to be any unique way in which it differs from our universities.

So, why are we so sure that it is different? I recently read an article by Anthony Kronman, a Professor at Yale. His main concern is the role of the humanities in modern universities and he believes a university education should stimulate students to think about the meaning of life - and how they should live.

A university education should help students to answer the question: "Why are we here?" Unlike Kronman, the "we" I have been talking about is not students or staff but universities.

Why are universities here? What are universities for? Answering this question means a change in perspective. The significant differences between Hamburger U and our universities lie not in what they do but in their purpose; not in the state of their art, but in the state of their hearts.

What are the purposes of a university? In Australia, we usually identify three: teaching, research and community engagement. Our politicians, journalists and business people typically view each of these purposes in utilitarian terms.
Teaching is important because graduates get better jobs, become more productive and make Australia richer. Research is important because it leads to new discoveries, which lead to new products that make Australia richer.

Getting in the spirit, vice-chancellors demonstrate community engagement by hiring consultants to calculate their university's economic impact on the nation. In other words, community engagement is another way of making Australia richer.

Making graduates and the country richer cannot be the purpose of universities because, unless you are a miser, making money is not an end in itself - it is a tool. We need money to achieve our goals, but first it's necessary to have goals.

This is why the Dearing inquiry into UK Higher Education in the 1990s identified not three but four purposes for universities. In addition to teaching, research and community engagement, Lord Dearing said universities should also have a social goal. Specifically, universities should "play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society".

Nobel Laureate, Friedrich Hayek, expressed similar sentiments. For Hayek, the purpose of social institutions, such as universities, is to increase liberty and freedom. Grand ideas, I'm sure you will agree, but what do Dearing and Hayek actually mean?

How can universities shape democracy and increase freedom? The answer is they do this by strengthening the voluntary social groups that make up civil society. Trade unions, professional associations, churches, political parties and business groups not only meet the needs of their members, they also provide a vital counterbalance to the power of the state.

Such a balance is necessary because, when the state becomes too powerful, liberty and freedom can disappear. But a strong civil society cannot be taken for granted; it depends on a solid foundation of education.

As Epictetus said, "only the educated are free". The ability to speak at meetings, write letters, organise projects, conduct research, analyse arguments, be aware of scientific progress and understand how government works are the core skills of democracy.

They come from education. Civil society needs doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers and many other skilled people. They come from education. We live in a world of constant change; our society depends on our having skills to adapt. They come from education.

Many studies have found that graduates are more likely to vote, to give to charity, and to volunteer their time. In other words, education is the vital ingredient on which civil society depends. So, here is the real reason we need to have a sound economy.

We want the country to thrive because we need money to provide the education on which our freedom and liberty depend. In a "democratic, civilised and inclusive society" (to use Dearing's phrase) all citizens should have the opportunity to reach their potential, to go as far as their abilities take them.

This is not only good for those who are educated but good for the rest of us because educated people help strengthen civil society. This does not mean that all universities have to offer the same courses: diversity is important.

I believe the way forward is through competition. Every eligible student should be given a scholarship equivalent to the amount the commonwealth currently pays for each university place. Students would take this scholarship to a university, which would then collect the money from the commonwealth. Universities would have to compete for students in order to survive. By forcing institutions to find a distinctive niche, competition would foster diversity.

Some universities would target adult learners, others would go for residential students, while still others would focus on vocational training. In each case, universities would lift their game or risk being beaten by the competition.

And to ensure the highest level of excellence, fees should also be deregulated. An elite seminar at a high demand university in a desirable location should cost more than a large lecture class in a low demand institution. By allowing the best courses to charge more, our universities would be able to compete with the best in the world.

To ensure that access to elite education is not limited to the rich, universities that sought to raise fees should be required to use some of their new income to support disadvantaged students.
Universities, forced to compete, would find their niches. Students, who control the purse strings, would influence what gets taught, by whom and when. Institutions would benefit too because they would be able to adjust their offerings to meet student demand and the country would benefit from having the strong universities we need to ensure our continued economic and social progress.
But what sort of education will they provide? If we are to fulfil our mission, we will have to work on our curricula. Instead of over-specialised purely vocational courses, we need to ensure that our students understand how democracy actually works.

They need to know about totalitarianism and oppression so they can learn to appreciate liberty. And they need to understand how free markets help to produce free people. They may not listen to symphonies but they should recognise one when they hear one; they may never read poems but they should be able to distinguish poetry from doggerel. It is worth doing these things.

If the right sort of higher education can be made available to all students, it will become an instrument for strengthening civil society. But some potential students are excluded: universities remain dominated by students from middle class and professional families.

Students from low income backgrounds continue to be under-represented. If we agree with Dearing, if we want a "democratic, civilised and inclusive society", then we need to ensure equality of opportunity extends to all of its members.

We can do this by making sure that ability, not bankbooks, determines opportunities in life. We must change some of our ways: instead of giving our scarce scholarship money to students with the highest marks (who make us look good), we should give scholarships to those from the lowest economic groups - students who could not afford to go to university without help.

Instead of relying solely on a single computer-generated university entrance score to determine who is admitted to university, we should also use entrance examinations, personal statements, school recommendations and anything else that might uncover hidden potential.

Instead of teaching only during the day, we should also teach in the evenings and weekends so that working students, and those with families, get the chance to study. These things will all help currently excluded students to gain a university education.

So, here, at last, is the difference between Hamburger University and real universities. It is not what they do but what they are. Real universities are the engines of economic growth without which civil society would wither and social justice would be impossible.

Hamburger U adds value to McDonald's employees. Why are we here? We are here to increase the freedom of everyone.
*Stephen Schwartz is Vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney. This is an edited version of a speech he gave to a conference in March.