Here's what we think university is for, Mr Clarke 1

May 23, 2003

Education secretary Charles Clarke has called for a debate on the purpose of universities following his controversial speech at University College Worcester in April. He said the job of a university was to help the economy and to help people deal with changes in society, which seems to leave little room for learning for learning's sake. Mr Clarke is having a series of talks with vice-chancellors and the great and the good. To give him input from lower down the food chain, The THES talked to some academics at an old and a new university - and also to some members of the public - about what they think universities are for. Join the debate at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom

University College London academics are in no doubt that universities should foster free thinking and blue-skies research, writes Alison Goddard.

David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology, said: "It's about truth and having people who are willing to study questions dispassionately and think abstractly about questions. The more we make everything dependent on numbers and things we can measure, the less room there is for independent thinkers."

John Foreman, dean of students, said: "What are universities for? The answer can be summed up in one word - education.

"Would we wish to survive without medieval history? No: it would decivilise society. Who pays for universities? Either we can pour money into whatever academics want to follow or into only those activities that the state can measure and that are deemed to be acceptable. The answer must lie somewhere in between.

Mary Fulbrook, professor of German, said: "A university has to have space for debate and discussion and reading and thinking. If you are thinking about blue-skies research, you cannot predict what will come up. It is also really crucial and an aspect of the human condition to think about who we are - space for that has to be preserved not only for those already doing it but also for young people to flower and explore and think."

Laura Lepschy, professor of Italian, said: "We should be more concerned with providing an intellectual preparation that will equip students for their future careers than with a match between job and a specific degree course.

"We should provide students with an intellectual approach that will enable them to develop analytical skills and to formulate verifiable hypotheses; to use with accuracy and honesty written and oral sources; to sift evidence and put forward a reasoned argument clearly and succinctly; to see phenomena, issues and problems in their social and historical contexts; and to understand different cultures and beliefs."

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