Saintly champion of liberal values out of step with business zeitgeist

What would Cardinal Newman make of 'impact' and the REF? John Morgan investigates

September 16, 2010

A champion of the academy is to take one of the final steps towards sainthood during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Britain this week.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Victorian scholar renowned for his ideas about the role of the university, will be beatified by the Pope in a ceremony on 19 September.

Only last week, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, sought to add ballast to his speech at the Universities UK conference at Cranfield University by invoking the influential thinker, who died in 1890. But some argue that the cardinal's message, which emphasised ideas that modern government and business would find hard to stomach, is very different from the one understood by Mr Willetts.

The Idea of a University collects lectures delivered in the 1850s as Newman helped establish University College Dublin, the institution that provided Irish Catholics with their first taste of higher education and of which he was the first rector.

Drawing on his experience as a tutor at the University of Oxford, Newman described the university as a place for the teaching of "universal knowledge" rather than vocational training or research, where students pursued a broad-based liberal education.

Peter Lutzeier, principal of Newman University College, a Catholic institution named in honour of the cardinal and based in Birmingham, where he lived for nearly 40 years, said Newman believed that a university's reason for being "is its students", and that research should be carried out in specialist institutes. He also highlighted Newman's notions of the university's role in "formation of character", shaping "habits of mind" that persist throughout life.

Of his relevance today, Professor Lutzeier said: "I would say Newman puts the education back into higher education. He would have very different views from the CBI, which says: 'We need graduates delivering these kind of skills.'

"That is important to keep society going, but in order to have a reflective stance on the major issues, we need what Newman would call the 'habit of mind' to reflect."

Newman's opposition to pure vocational training in universities was also emphasised by Robert Anderson, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh and author of British Universities Past and Present (2006).

What would Newman have made of a world where universities are controlled by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and business groups lobby government to increase provision in certain subject areas?

"I don't think he would have had much use for that," Professor Anderson said. "There is a lot in his book about professional training - he is not against it, but he thinks it needs to be accompanied by education of the whole person."

In Newman's time, vocational training meant the law and medicine, he pointed out.

When asked about the cardinal's impact on higher education, the professor said that Newman's ideas were little discussed until the 20th century - and then more so in the US than in Britain. "He is seen as a spokesman for the idea of liberal education, and in some ways that is more of a live issue in America than in Britain, with liberal-arts colleges."

Many of Newman's ideas do not fit with the "sort of rhetoric vice-chancellors use" when they pepper speeches with references to The Idea of a University, the professor added, and go against the modern concept of "league tables, the research university - the international model".

"If you think of universities as being about educating individuals - which is what they have been about for most of their history - then Newman could still be an inspiration," he said.


Universities are in danger of becoming "lapdogs of business", while some academics have eschewed the pursuit of truth in favour of research with predetermined conclusions, according to Bart McGettrick.

Speaking in the run-up to a conference at Liverpool Hope University starting on 16 September, Professor McGettrick, dean of the university's Faculty of Education, said truth, scholarship and integrity were under threat in the modern "market-driven" university. The conference is timed to coincide with Cardinal Newman's beatification, but the professor said that "if Newman looked around at modern universities, he would be in mild despair".

"He would see that education has taken on a functional, mechanistic model of compliance," he said. "In my more despairing moments, I think even truth has become a commodity to be bought and sold. People will take on research projects knowing what the outcome is going to be. Is that the pursuit of truth?"

Most universities were "honourable enough places to avoid that danger", he added. "But there is a real danger that universities could become little more than the lapdogs of business, serving the needs of those with money to commission research."

At Liverpool Hope, the professor said, Newman's ideals carried greater weight: "I hope Newman would give it seven out of 10, plus possibly an extra half for trying."

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