What are universities for?

Saturday 30 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Student Union

What is the university for? In what many see as its heyday in the mid-to-late-twentieth century, the university was understood at least in principle to be a place of academic research and intellectual exploration that was to some extent autonomous from immediate social and political pressures and occupied a position in society that was valued in its own terms. Today, the idea that academic research is valuable in its own terms is highly contested. The last government controversially sought to change how academic research was evaluated by emphasising demonstrable ‘social and economic impact’. The new government is rhetorically opposed to this approach. Universities secretary David Willetts is ‘in favour of curiosity-driven research whose applications may take time to emerge, if at all’. Yet tellingly universities remain subsumed in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Research councils and university rectors continue to feel the need to justify their entitlement to public money in instrumental terms: ‘Fund us and we’ll prove we deliver x,y,z’. Indeed, in an era of public spending cuts, shouldn’t universities have to demonstrate their value as much as any other sector?

The idea that universities are spaces for intellectual reflection is increasingly seen as out of date. Willetts has written to all universities demanding they issue statements to demonstrate how their students are supported in terms of career guidance and work placements. Universities are also being instructed to help overcome social inequalities by accepting students who have not achieved the required marks. This approach seems to have seriously negative consequences, especially on those subjects not deemed easily able to demonstrate their social and economic ‘impact’. Renowned university departments and chairs which are not held to be ‘financially viable’ face the axe: despite protests, humanities departments at the universities of Middlesex, Sussex and Westminster and at King’s College London bear the brunt of attempts at savings, with philosophy departments made to feel particularly vulnerable. 

What is lost if ‘curiosity-driven research’ is sidelined, and higher education is required to prove its worth as a training ground for jobs? Are philosophy or ancient history or literary analysis or basic science unimportant, because they don’t have obvious social benefits? Some argue the problem is that the market has a dread of things that can’t be measured, but in that case how is it that knowledge was seemingly valued for its own sake in the recent past, under governments of both left and right? What has changed in the way knowledge and intellectual authority are understood and valued?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Philip Cunliffe
senior lecturer in international conflict, University of Kent; co-editor, Politics Without Sovereignty: a critique of contemporary international relations.

Philip Moriarty
professor of physics and EPSRC leadership fellow, University of Nottingham

David Sweeney
director, research, innovation and skills, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)

Drs Astrid Wissenburg
director, communications and information, ESRC

Sukanta Chaudhuri
emeritus professor of English, Jadavpur University; scholar of European Renaissance literature and textual studies; translator; writer and campaigner on urban issues and educational planning.

Dr Tara McCormack
lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches

Produced by
Dr Tara McCormack lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches
Recommended readings
Turning the Ivory Towers into a skills factory

Today’s yawn-inducing debate about how higher education should be funded reflects a profound uncertainty about what higher education is for.

Tim Black, spiked, 12 October 2010

The Idea of a University

From 1854, for a period of five years, Newman was rector of the newly founded Catholic University of Ireland (now University College Dublin), and during that time he delivered lectures that were later published as The Idea of a University -- surely the most serene and beautiful vindication that we have of the old ideal of the scholarly life.

Roger Scruton, American Spectator, September 2010

We can work it out

As graduates struggle to find employment, universities are having to think more creatively about how to prepare them for the workplace

Rebecca Attwood, Times Higher Education, 2 September 2010

University just isn’t right for everyone

If you’re going to university simply to improve your CV or ‘find yourself’, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

David Perks, spiked, 26 August 2010

Get in shape: lose the fat

Clive Bloom sheds few tears for Middlesex's strangely underpopulated philosophy department - or any other corners of an academy short on recruits and long overdue for the axe. He argues that to save money and raise standards, the weakest institutions must close

Clive Bloom, Times Higher Education, 30 July 2010

The best way to finance universities is to make the participants pay

Vince Cable was right to take aim at universities, but wrong on a graduate tax that will make them more chained to the state

Simon Jenkins, Guardian, 15 July 2010

What happened to studying?

You won’t hear this from the admissions office, but college students are cracking the books less and less

Keith O'Brien, Boston Globe, 5 July 2010

We did it before...

As universities agonise over greatly reduced funding from the state, David Greenaway reminds them that they were once much more financially self-reliant and would do well to rekindle the old spirit

David Greenaway, , 29 January 2010

Impact on humanities

Researchers must take a stand now or be judged and rewarded as salesmen

Stefan Collini, Times Literary Supplement, 13 November 2009

The philistines in the ivory tower

The real threat to academic freedom today comes from the collapse of belief in the worth of intellectual enquiry.

Tara McCormack, spiked, 17 June 2009

The economic-impact fallacy

Research councils in the UK have recently introduced “economic-impact criteria” into the peer-review process used to determine which research projects should receive funding. Philip Moriarty argues that this will harm the country’s science and innovation

Philip Moriarty, Physics World, June 2009

These directions map out a one-way road into service, not open inquiry

The AHRC is so aligned with the government agenda of impact and knowledge transfer that it betrays its very raison d'etre

Peter Barry, Times Higher Education, 16 April 2009

Reclaiming academia from post-academia

Post-academic science, driven as it is by commercialisation and market forces, is fundamentally at odds with core academic principles. Publicly-funded academics have an obligation to carry out science for the public good, a responsibility which is incompatible with the entrepreneurial ethos increasingly expected of university research by funding agencies.

Philip Moriarty, Nature Nanotechnology, 27 January 2008

University challenge

Universities are struggling to cope with the expansion of higher education. Should students pay more for the benefits? Can you have excellence in a mass system? Does Britain really need world-class universities?

Alison Wolf, Prospect, 21 January 2003

What is academia for?

The popular acclaim for Alan Sokal's Intellectual Impostures suggests a deep-seated suspicion about the value of much theoretical work in the humanities. But if the heroic age of scholarship is past, what are the humanities for? To teach us how to lead better lives?

Alain de Botton, Prospect, 21 August 1998

Session partners

in association with