GLOBAL: The university, diversity and autonomy

What is a 'real' university? asked Gordon Graham, a professor of philosophy and the arts at Princeton Theological Seminary in the US, at a round-table discussion at Rhodes University in South Africa last month. He offered a critical comparison of three 'ideal types' that have played a significant role in the history of higher education across the world, and called for a relook at professional education as a way to resist current threats to university autonomy.

The 'ideal types' are the university college, the university as research institution and the university as polytechnic.

"Comparing these models can help clarify the potential future choices universities must make in the face of a problem that commonly confronts them - how to affirm the university's valuable social role, while resisting two recurrent threats to its autonomy: 'the state as social engineer' and 'the student as customer'," Graham told University World News.

He was participating in a round-table titled "The Aims of Higher Education", organised by its Centre for Higher Education, Research, Teaching and Learning at Rhodes.

A huge variety of institutions - from Indira Ghandi Open University with its estimated three million students to the world's most northerly University in Svalbard with just 350 students - have been accorded the title 'university' despite the radical differences between them.

"The title does not merely classify; it accords a special status, and this means we can always ask if the status is warranted," said Graham.

"What a university is, is not simply a matter of empirical investigation; it requires an exploration of educational ideals," he added.

The core differences between contrasting models of the university have proved to have important social and economic ramifications, with accompanying differences in their administrative style, social role and financial structure.

The university as college was the oldest conception of the university, and this ideal shaped famous European universities such as Boulogne, Paris and Oxford, as well as higher education in the American colonies where fledgling colleges laid the foundations for important post-colonial universities like Princeton in New Jersey and Columbia in New York.

"Education as the pursuit of learning lay the heart of this ideal. This is reflected in the fact that the distinctions between bachelor, master, and doctor did not separate members of the university in the way the class of 'student' is separated from the profession of 'teacher'," Graham said.

"The purpose of this learning was not simply knowledge for its own sake. The early universities of Europe were as much professional schools for priests and lawyers (and later for medics), as they were centres of biblical and theological scholarship."

The college ideal struggled to survive in the second half of the 19th century, which saw the birth of the modern 'research' university' when the University of Berlin was created in 1810 by William von Humboldt.

It was, by intention, a community of scholars and scientists devoted to pure intellectual inquiry without any reference to educational value or wider social function.

Berlin was soon replicated by Johns Hopkins in America, and eventually came to be the dominant model of the first class university - a leading research institution committed to the production of knowledge for its own sake.

But the model of a research university always had its critics, said Graham. "It rather too easily fits the negative image of the 'ivory tower', a place for the pursuit of arcane interests that have no connection with or value for the business of ordinary life." He noted that this depiction was especially damaging to universities dependent on the public purse. "Why should taxpayers be expected to pay those in ivory towers?"

This perception naturally prompted an increasing demand for more obviously useful practical and technical education, and opened the door to a third conception of the university as a place where practically knowledge was taught at an advanced level.

This was the motive behind the American Land Grant Universities of the late 19th century, as well as the 'mechanics institutes' that spread across the British Empire.

This emphasis, said Graham, both reflected and strengthened a policy of confining academic inquiry to what is socially useful. But this means it can make little room for the pure research and scholarly inquiry that many regard as crucial to the identity of a 'real' university.

Graham argued that universities must somehow aspire to combining intellectual research for its own sake, the supply and transfer of useful knowledge for the benefit of society as whole, and the provision of an undergraduate education that will enrich the lives of the individuals who undergo it.

The prestige of intellectual research has come to overshadow education in determining the academic status of institutions, and practical knowledge more easily attracts public support than pure research.

As a solution to the current problem of integrating the competing demands of research, teaching and practical relevance, Graham proposed that the idea of professional education - an element of the college model of medieval times - was worth exploring more closely.

This differed from merely technical education, requiring 'values education' and a general tertiary education that was constantly refreshed by intellectual inquiry. In this way, it realised important values from all three university models.

"It is possible to elaborate this renewed version of the university as college in a way that throws new and more profitable light on many of the problems that currently confront the academy," Graham concluded.

"Chief among these, in my estimation, is the difficulty of continuing to assert the university's valuable social role, while resisting two recurrent threats to its autonomy - 'the state as social engineer' and 'the student as customer'."