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Opinion: David Willetts' "idea of the university" is an alien concept

23 January 2012

Elizabeth Grant reflects on the New Year Address given by the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities.

Westminster by night. Image: Jim Trodel

Image: Jim Trodel

I left Thursday’s New Year Address with a number of thoughts and concerns about the further reforms intended for the sector and the Government’s “idea(s) of the British university”.

As someone who has already seen significant changes to HE take place over the last 20 years, and having worked with academic staff from a range of universities throughout that time, hearing the minister outline the “idea of the university” as an institution that will “link students emotionally, personally and financially to their university” seems quite an alien concept.

I wonder how, at the chalk face, such a dynamic could create better learners and better educators? What kind of relationships will transpire?  

Willetts was keen to emphasise that scholarship, freedom and excellence are underpinning principles for British universities. In discussing the value of the university, the minister reminded the audience of the contribution that higher education makes to the economic wellbeing of the UK. He added that the enhanced social mobility and cultural capital associated with a university education were “worthwhile in themselves”.

It would have been good if he had expanded on this, for I was left unsure of the importance that the Government is giving to the sociocultural and academic purposes of the university. For example, Willetts’ assertion that the university is “crucial for western culture and scientific advance” needs unpicking: what is this “western culture” that he refers to, and is there recognition that many researchers contributing to “scientific advance” within this country are not “western” in the first place? Interestingly, any use of the words ‘global’ or ‘international’ were about global positioning, reputation and the UK economy. Internationalisation did not feature in the address per se.

I wonder if this means that we will return to the concept of an internationalised higher education based solely upon international student recruitment and marketisation. I do hope not.

Referring to 18th-century philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt and 19th-century theologian John Henry Newman, Willetts briefly explained what he saw as their opposing ideas of a university. Humboldt, he said, argued in favour of research-focused institutions, whereas Newman believed that teaching and education were the sole concerns of universities. The current Government, according to Willetts, encourages both models of higher education across the UK.

Unfortunately, although the minister explained that Newman’s model was developed in order to establish a Catholic university in Dublin, he did not provide the context.

Firstly, according to the Rev Dr Ian Ker, an Oxford scholar writing on ‘Newman’s Idea of a University and its Relevance for the 21st Century’, Newman had emphasised the centrality of teaching in order to persuade the bishops in Ireland to support the development of a Catholic boys’ university (he had to play down the research angle for political reasons).

Secondly, the importance of research is specifically mentioned in the preface of Newman’s book The Idea of the University.

Thirdly, the university recruited 16-year-old boys who would move to higher study two years later. This latter point suggests to me a particular model for a particular student profile influenced not only by a philosophy of education, but influencing pedagogy and the research-teaching relationship also.

The Humboldtian model did focus upon research, but Humboldt’s idea was of a university concerned with personal transformation through “a process of acquiring the world, and to connect it with the person, and thus to interact with the world” (Humboldt, W. c.1792-99). The development in enquiry-based and problem-based learning, according to Prof Lewis Elton, shows how Humboldt’s model has strong synergy with teaching and learning.

Perhaps one of the unintended outcomes of Willetts' address (at a micro level) was that it revealed a current issue within higher education teaching and learning – that of the research-teaching nexus. How do we develop practice that links research to teaching and that enhances student learning? 

At national level, the distinction that the minister made between different types of institutions appeared to imply a more marked distinction between the former polytechnics and the universities established prior to 1992. Having been educated at a post-’92 university and worked across a range of universities, I wondered about the consequences of this.

The post-’92 universities have their own unique history, most of them having developed from the mechanics or design institutes of the 19th century. These were established for bright, working-class people and were focused upon local industrial needs. At the polytechnic that I attended, we were taught in classrooms located in the town’s old workhouse – symbolic for me of the long struggle for educational equality. I admired the research that my tutors, many of whom were from traditional universities, were engaged in.

Even though I recognise that research will differ according to institutional mission, is it not an essential part of any academic’s “way of thinking and practising” to engage in research and to encourage such behaviours within students as they move through their programmes of learning?

Concerns about such institutional distinctions could be unfounded, as the minister informed us that the burden of VAT would be lifted from universities that shared services with other universities. This seems a sound idea in principle, and the concept of building good practice across a range of higher educational provision is something to celebrate. However, I am not clear to what services Willetts refers. What purpose is the sharing for? And what consequences will this have for teaching, learning and assessment?

An ‘Information Landscape Project’, established a month ago, is reviewing data returns with the aim of cutting down on unnecessary bureaucracy. This could be a really good move since so many people are frustrated with the amount of seemingly unnecessary admin required in HE. Coincidentally, there was quite a passionate discussion about frustratingly unreliable data collection methods at a Faculty Teaching Committee meeting I recently attended, so maybe this review and its recommendations will be helpful.

Whatever new model is agreed, there will be a focus upon graduate employment. In particular, data is to be collected on labour market trends in relation to every university. Employability is to be given prominence, and business partnerships are being encouraged.  

Plenty of change afoot, and plenty to think about.

Here are some of my final reflections:

  • In the long term, what will the result of a “western”, multi-modelled, economically driven, consumerist higher education system be upon the “emotional, personal and financial relationship” that students are expected to have with their university? 
  • What impact will these changes have upon scholarship, freedom and excellence?
  • What will the impact be upon student learning and teaching practices?
  • What kind of information are universities asked for that is completely unnecessary?
  • What does “sharing services” really mean? What could the benefits and pitfalls be?

Elizabeth Grant is a principal school-facing teaching fellow in the UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT). Let her know your thoughts: email

Page last modified on 23 jan 12 12:12

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