When is a university not a university? Some thoughts on university titles

Yesterday I was trying to come up with a definitive list of all the universities in the UK. It’s a lot trickier than I expected and certainly harder than finding out how many universities there are in other countries. One of several issues I faced was finding a list which had caught up with all the latest awards of university title. The official list of institutions recognised with degree awarding powers (thanks @amcgettigan) is out-of-date as it incorrectly lists Harper Adams University, BPP University and Bishop Grosseteste University as university colleges. (There is also the bizarre historical throwback of the Archbishop of Canterbury having the power to confer degrees! Mine’s a doctorate please Justin!).

The latest batch of awards of university title have caused a bit of a stir, not least because they confer the name on for-profit outfits, formerly the College of Law and BPP University College, now the University of Law and BPP University respectively. An excellent recent blog post by Andrew McGettigan for the Campaign for the Defence of British Universities draws attention to the ‘Companies House’ route to university title followed in these two cases and the apparent dilution of the requirements now permitted, at least in England and Wales. All of this is part of an ideologically-driven government attempt to ‘introduce new providers to the market’, siphoning off public value into private profit in the usual way (and doing it in a cack-handed headlong rush too). It appears to be as spectacularly unsuccessful as it is distasteful, the irony being that the ‘market’ tells us that young people massively prefer decent public universities.

Looking at the list of universities got me thinking about what the title should mean. It seems to me that the definition of ‘university’ is inevitably slippery, but that there must be some core features around which any university worth the name should cohere.

Firstly: subject range. It should be pretty broad. The root of the word ‘university’ is ‘whole, entire’. It’s not feasible for every university to teach everything, but as a minimum there ought to be coverage of arts and sciences, some social science, and a bit of vocational education of some sort (recalling that medicine, law and theology have been there since the beginning). What a university absolutely shouldn’t be is anything close to a ‘monotechnic’. This makes the University of Law an utter oxymoron, but the same must apply to universities which only teach arts subjects, whether that be the University of the Arts, London or some of the newest, smallest universities with a very limited subject range. If LSE and Imperial, with their limited set of departments, can eschew the university title, then there doesn’t seem any good reason why others of similar nature should adopt it. Don’t misunderstand me – this is not a comment on the academic standing of ‘universities’ with narrow subject ranges, it is simply about the scope of their provision.

Secondly, research and scholarship. A university should have the creation, transformation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge in its very fibre. It should be organised around a community of scholars, not to the exclusion of others or for the aggrandisement of academics, but rather as the best way of fulfilling its intellectual mission. Above all a university is its people, much more than it is a place (as the Open University shows us). I tried to find the name of the academic staff at BPP University, but all I could find was the board of directors. Are there any academic staff? There certainly doesn’t appear to be any research or scholarship going on. Type the word “research” into the BPP University search engine and you get back a list of courses only. A university should also enable the pursuit of truth above all else, which implies space for critique, dissent and new ideas. That seems pretty difficult to me if you only teach accountancy.

Thirdly, scale. Size is relative of course: a couple of thousand students was fine for medieval universities and all UK universities look pretty piddling compared to the mega-varsities of Buenos Aires, UNAM and Rome La Sapienza. Still, many of the institutions to become universities most recently are very small in student number terms. I think there is a useful analogy here with cities: there are some places which are undeniably cities given their size – London, Birmingham and Manchester, for instance. Other places are much smaller, but still cities: York, Bath, Exeter. A few ‘cities’ are baffling oddities though (yes St. David’s and St. Asaph, I mean you). There has to be a certain scope to a university, which I appreciate is difficult for anyone tasked with setting a size criterion to specify. One thousand students seems too small to me because it is difficult to achieve breadth and depth with that number. However absolute size cannot be the only guide because larger institutions with a narrow subject base and/or little research are less university-like than some smaller institutions with greater disciplinary reach.

Using these three criteria as a guide, many of the newest universities don’t seem to me to fit the definition. The pint-size University of Buckingham, of which I’m not very fond, with its two year degrees and Thatcherite heritage does pass muster. This is not about pulling the ladder up or ‘protecting the brand’ (yuk) – many of the newest universities are clearly university level institutions, doing a good job. Rather it is about being honest and consistent in the application of the university name to an institution – and faithful to the contested, yet enduring idea of the university.


1 Comment

Filed under Higher education policy, UK, universities, university title

One response to “When is a university not a university? Some thoughts on university titles

  1. Pingback: Confessions of a campus completist | The Elbow Patch

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