What is a university?" is one of those portentous questions, like "What is history?", that are easily and succinctly put but that are always answered at length and with some difficulty. The most famous consideration was, of course, made by John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University. The musings of a 19th-century prelate may not strike some as relevant today. But however otiose his attempts to marry the benefits of a liberal education with the moral sanction of the Catholic Church may seem today, there are in fact parallels between his aims and recent attempts to redefine the higher education agenda.
Newman penned his treatise to promote a radical innovation: he wanted to get recognition for his newly established Catholic university. To do that he had to persuade the church hierarchy that a liberal, inquiring education would not undermine the foundations of faith, to convince the Irish middle classes that a broad critical curriculum was better than a narrow professional one, and to reassure the Anglican establishment that a Roman rival would not unduly threaten its pre-eminence. It is not so much his arguments that ought to command our attention as his strategy. Newman identified and elucidated the elements of a classical education in order to advance a new, and for the time, revolutionary proposition. He emphasised continuity to advocate change.
This is not to propose a return to some narrow definition of a university that owes more to sentiment than to fact. There has never been an Identikit university. After Oxford, there was the "Other Place", where presumably they did things differently. Fast-forward to the Victorian civics and early polytechnics, through the plate-glass insurgency of the 1960s and the mass expansion of the 1990s, to the new-new universities of today, and it becomes clear that diversity has always been an integral part of university.
If Newman's prose does not sit easily with the language of the stakeholder generation, his strategy should. Amid all the talk of the skills agenda, widening access and business-facing institutions, there needs to be some awareness and discussion of what unites as well as differentiates; of what values universities share regardless of the disparate roles they may have.
“There needs to be some awareness of what values universities share regardless of their disparate roles”
What, exactly? What ineffable qualities allow the recently entitled university to consider itself so apart from the further education college across town that it feels confident enough to put a price on the difference - approximately £2,000 a year for an undergraduate course? Or, for that matter, how eternal are verities that were once so fine, rigid and true that they could not possibly accommodate the towers of a business school among the forest of dreaming spires? Eternal, perhaps, but open to reinterpretation, certainly.
It is not that the case for essential university values cannot be made, rather that proponents of change have generally chosen not to address it. All universities have a duty to extend and diffuse knowledge, so teaching and research are essential, but to what degree? Both rely on a third requirement - freedom of thought and expression - and most would concede a fourth, to foster inquiring minds that can do more than merely acquire skills.
Newman believed bringing together people "from all parts in one spot" was essential. But The Open University and commute-to-learn students have made the importance of location debatable. Beyond that, the effable acquires its "in", and it is easier to ask questions than supply answers. Perhaps that is enough. At least it's a start. It is something Newman understood and we seem to have forgotten.