So what is a university exactly?

I was asked recently to talk about what I thought I university is – as opposed to what it does. This distinction is at the core of my PhD work in its current form. I’m focusing on the ideas of the university that define its role and purpose, the invisible and often taken for granted assumptions about what a university is and should be. I’m looking at the university as a whole, not a sum of its parts.

I see a lot in the literature about the university as an organisation but when I read it, the work is usually about ‘higher education’, or specific university functions, which is what a university does. This is the current version of how I’m explaining the distinction:

“In the thesis too, there is a deliberate differentiation between what a university is and should be, and what it does and how it does it. This is done to focus attention not only on the visible outcomes of the university’s activity such as teaching, research and management and governance structures and systems – that is, what a university does and how it does it. This visible space is shaped by the invisible side of the university, those beliefs held by people as individuals and the collective cultural system that frame thinking about what a university is and should bethat is, its purpose and social role. As the thesis will demonstrate, both sides of the university are integral to thinking about the university’s future as a social institution.”

When I was asked what I thought, I responded along the lines of ‘a university is a space where people gather to collaborate on how to make society better’. Not terribly elegant but the essence of what I believe. The power of a university as an organisation, as social institution, comes from the people in it working together to achieve social impact.

Yet today, we have contested ideas, values, beliefs and cultures that shape thinking about what a university is and that keep people in universities apart, not collaborating. The multiplicity of ideas keep them trapped a wider system that preferences data, measurement and evidence and reduces people to assets and capital. It is a system that demands control and hierarchies, not trust and networks. It is a system where one idea of the university is dominant at the expense of all others. And in the attempts of various groups to hang on to their cultural construct of the idea of the university is, what a university does is disconnecting from the societies where it is seeking to achieve impact.

Now, of course, my PhD challenge is to demonstrate how and why I think this is happening! One thing that is amusing as I do the research is that many of the issues we think have emerged today or in the last couple of decades are actually old issues – I’ve found references to business incursions into the universities in the early 1900s and other challenges referenced in the mid-1800s for example. All of them are concerned with protecting cherished ideas about what a university is – their idea of a university that they hold dear and believe to be true. And in a foresight sense, at those earlier times, these writings were weak signals, seeds of the future in that present.

It is pretty clear to me that there are multiple ideas about what a university is and probably always has been. It didn’t matter too much in the past when universities could self-define what they were and what they did, but that capacity has pretty much disappeared today as society pushes back and no longer accepts the self-definition. What a university is remains a concept heavily debated, disputed and contested today but the power of the idea underpinning these different views is often not articulated – and that is a problem.

Instead, the idea manifests itself in competing positions, often expressed with great passion and/or vitriol, about who has the right to tell people in universities what to do and how to do it. It’s a complex, challenging and painful context that people in universities find themselves in today as they try to hang on to their ideas of the university in the face of the new, the different and beliefs not necessarily steeped in the myriad of interpretations about academic culture, values and traditions.

My PhD research is focusing on the future of the university as a social institution and I’m grappling with these sorts of issues. Will the university as we know it today exist in 20 years? Maybe, maybe not. The power of the idea of the university is a strong cultural construct however, and finding ways to accept the diversity of ideas rather than defending my right idea might just be one way to preserve the university as a place where everyone’s ideas are welcome and social impact continues to emerge.

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