What is a university? Since the 1980s, it has been increasingly difficult to give a clear answer to this question. When the government of the day decided to rebrand polytechnics as universities, there was some confusion about the purpose of higher education. But British academia did not ask too many probing questions, and an opportunity to clarify the issues was lost.
Now the situation has become even more confusing with the government's announcement that almost any institution that teaches students can claim the title "university".
Whenever politicians decide to expand the definition of a university, the quality of academic education deteriorates. When polytechnics were renamed universities, some people believed they would eventually attain old university standards. But it was the old universities that changed - many of them have become polytechnics in all but name. The extension of vocational traditions and bureaucratic practices of the polytechnics into higher education gradually lowered academic standards. Today, we face the prospect of further diluting standards as institutions that we insist on calling universities may be de facto colleges of further education.
The current proposal is justified on the grounds that it is too restrictive to confine the university title to institutions that conduct research across a range of disciplines. Many academics who are horrified by this proposal note that, by turning research into an option, the government makes a mockery of higher education. Of course, the effect of this measure will be to legitimise the regime of philistinism that dominates campus life.
But, in reality, the government's redefinition of a university is just a clarification of a situation that many academics face already. The idea that teaching can be conducted in isolation from research has been pursued by governments since the early 1990s.
This approach was forcefully advocated by the Dearing report, which formalised the trend of separating teaching from research. Its aim was to transform university teaching into a technical skill that could be quantified and assessed on the basis of predictable outcomes. The report also advanced the proposal to force academics to take a course in teacher training, monitored by the Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. The establishment of an institute unconnected to any subject-based research but purporting to provide teacher training represents, in effect, the foundation for the new proposal to expand the definition of the university.
Tragically, many academics who are appalled by the decision to dilute the meaning of the university did not see the warning signs when teacher training was institutionalised. Research-led teaching became an empty slogan while assembly-line teacher training accredited by an agency ideologically devoted to the infantilisation of university teaching flourished. The pretence that university teaching is routinely related to research can no longer be sustained. If some institutions devoted solely to teaching can be called universities, why not others?
There is little we can do to stop further education colleges being renamed universities. But we can respond to this latest attempt to diminish the quality of academic life by initiating a real debate about the meaning of a university. We need to be more robust in getting the public to understand that a real university is worth fighting for. We need to transmit vigorously the message that the proposal to redefine the meaning of a university represents a con trick because what it offers is further - not higher - education. Most important of all, academics cannot afford to adopt the attitude that "they don't really mean it". In the past, this attitude helped create a mood of passivity and fostered a sense of retreat. Today, there is nowhere to retreat.
Professor of sociology at the University of Kent