What's the academy worth today?

Friday 5 October, 8.00pm until 9.30pm, Hellenic American Union, Massalias 22, 10680, Athens, Greece

University education in the 21st century, in a great number of countries, is subject to an increasingly large number of intense challenges. It is expensive for an expanding student body that views it as a necessary step on the career ladder. It can be viewed as a costly luxury by governments and taxpayers alike: forced to dress itself up vital to the economy. It is expected to demonstrate the value of its research activities in terms of their useful ‘impact’ on society. Overall, the contemporary pressures on the university seem to express a view of it as a means, an instrument, to an end: a demand that a university be for something. Should we consider first just what a university is?

In the Academy itself there is less and less agreement about what a university should be. This may reflect the increasing specialisation, some would say fragmentation, of disciplines and departments despite pious lip-service paid to the virtue of interdisciplinarity. Many countries have definitely seen huge quantitative changes (ever growing number of students) as well as qualitative ones that have certainly transformed what universities are today. In Greece there is also the issue of “university asylum” despite its repeal last year: alleged incidents of widespread lawlessness on campuses home to youth wings of political parties; with political activists blocking attempts at reform. At the same time, many argue that the traditional Greek academic model, with the high authority of the professor and the pursuit of knowledge as intrinsically worthwhile, is worth preserving.

Some say the golden age of the university has always been in the past, this is just another crisis we will resolve. Others say this is the golden age of the university: it was high time the ivory tower was broken into and sleepy professors forced to wake up to the demands of the real world. Some argue that they should be the solution to today’s economic crisis: teaching Tourism Studies for all they are worth. Some want them to be privatised. All work, one way or another, in universities that don’t seem to live up to the name of a ‘university’, at least in a traditional sense.

So, if we still hold to the ideal of a universal education for all, then do we have to determine again what that education should consist of and how it should be delivered? The evolution of the university from Plato’s Academy to massive ‘multiversities’, the lack of clarity about the very value of higher education, suggests that now might be the time to address that question.

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Vasso Kindi
associate professor of philosophy, University of Athens

Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos
lecturer in sociology, University of Loughborough; author, The Rise of Lifestyle Activism: From New Left to Occupy

Professor Thanos Veremis
emeritus professor, political history, University of Athens; founding member, Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)

Dr Ashley Frawley
Senior lecturer in sociology and social policy, Swansea University; author, The Semiotics of Happiness: rhetorical beginnings of a public problem

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos lecturer in sociology, University of Loughborough; author, The Rise of Lifestyle Activism: From New Left to Occupy
Recommended readings
University access tsar: institutions 'must set tougher admissions targets'

Elite universities should admit equal numbers of rich and poor students to prevent admissions being skewed towards the “most advantaged”, according to the Government’s higher education access tsar.

Graeme Paton, Daily Telegraph, 6 September 2012

Education bill causes rift in Pasok

At these recession times, very few would expect that the coalition government’s first big test on cohesion and efficiency would involve an education bill. The government’s first bill in parliament, introducing amendments mainly on university administration, stirred great controversy and a strong reaction by Pasok deputies.

Costas Papachlimintzos, Athens News, 3 August 2012

What are Universities For?

Stefan Collini challenges the common claim that universities need to show that they help to make money in order to justify getting more money. Instead, he argues that we must reflect on the different types of institution and the distinctive roles they play.

Stefan Collini, Penguin, 23 February 2012

David Lodge: A novelist's lament for the golden age of universities

If you want to give higher education to a significant proportion of the age group, you can't have the quality of life that students had in the Fifties and Sixties. You've got to accept that you can't provide it for free

Richard Garner, Independent, 28 March 2011

The golden age that never was

Most mainstream politicians have booted into touch - for now - the idea of charging Scottish students tuition fees. That shifts the debate back to two big questions: what is university for and what shape should university education take in the future?

Kenneth Macdonald, BBC News, 14 March 2011

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, 29 June 2010

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