On freedom, mission and origin stories

January 26, 2017

The House of Lords is struggling to define what makes a university within the context of the Higher Education and Research Bill (“Refining our terms”, Leader, 19 January). In the US, “the defining feature of universities – their commitment to freedom of enquiry, ideas and debate” “shines through”.

The difference between universities in the US and the UK? Tenure. Without tenure, there is no academic freedom. Without academic freedom, there are no universities. Job security has been further eroded in the UK by the downgrading of academic contracts from “permanent” to “ongoing” and a shameful increase in casualisation. Couple that with the removal of resources to undertake unfunded blue-sky research following the dismantling of the “dual-support” system in the 1990s, and what do you have left? A collection of contract research houses that do a bit of teaching on the side.

The House of Lords is struggling to define what makes a university within the context of the higher education bill because the inescapable conclusion is that the UK no longer has a university system worthy of the name.

Name and address withheld


Your leader made interesting reading here at Newman University. Our institution carries the name of Blessed John Henry Newman, and we aim to remain true to his idea of the university.

I would hazard a guess that regardless of the inclusion or absence of a definition of a university in the Higher Education and Research Bill we, like most if not all other UK universities, will strive to keep alive the culture of enquiry, challenge, critique and respectful dialogue that is essential to the life of a university and the country.

While Newman concluded in The Idea of the University that “If a practical end must be assigned to a university course I say that it is the training of good members of society”, he also had some interesting things to say about the role of a liberal education in what we currently term “employability” and “transferable skills”, to wit:

“A [person] who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined [their] taste, and formed [their] judgment, and sharpened [their] mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good landlord, or a [person] of business, or a soldier, or an engineer, or a chemist, or a geologist, or an antiquarian, but [they] will be placed in that state of intellect in which [they] can take up any one of the sciences or callings.”

This view allows us to draw a distinction between “training” and education, the true end of which is the pursuit of knowledge. To again quote Newman: “Knowledge is capable of being its own end”, but I suspect this would find little favour in today’s market-driven higher education environment, which focuses on serving the economy.

J. Scott Davidson
Newman University


In “Refining our terms”, it is stated that “Donald Trump’s [conception of a university] isn’t the same as Alexander von Humboldt’s. It’s the latter’s concept of the modern research university that many of the rankings, including our own, try to distil and capture today.”

But, with respect, Times Higher Education has the wrong Humboldt: the one who created the modern university was not Alexander, the geographer and explorer, but rather his brother Wilhelm, the linguist and liberal philosopher. He was briefly appointed to a senior position in education in Prussia in 1809-10, and set in train a series of reforms that created the modern university and the modern doctorate.

It should be noted that confusing the two brothers is not uncommon. In its Characteristics Statement on doctoral degrees, the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency points out that the modern doctorate “…is closely associated with F. W. H. Alexander von Humboldt, the German/Prussian physical geographer and anthropologist”.

Alexander, of course, is mainly known for the current named after him, but it is Wilhelm whom we should thank for the modern university.

Stan Taylor
Honorary fellow, School of Education
Durham University

Send to

Letters should be sent to: THE.Letters@tesglobal.com
Letters for publication in Times Higher Education should arrive by 9am Monday.
View terms and conditions.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related universities

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments