THE Scholarly Web

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December 6, 2012

"What makes a university a university?" asks Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal and vice-chancellor of Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University, in the latest posting on A University Blog.

"A few years ago I had this discussion with a group of academics, and two of them suggested that, in order to be a legitimate university, an institution had to address a number of academic subject areas, which would have to include history and mathematics."

Dublin City University, of which Professor von Prondzynski was president at the time of the conversation, had a School of Mathematical Sciences but did not cover history. "Now I am Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and we have neither. Does this mean we aren't a legitimate university?" he ponders.

Professor von Prondzynski is posing the question following the news that the College of Law is to become the University of Law: "a one-subject university", as he describes it.

"All its courses are for practising or aspiring lawyers, and while some of these courses are offered at a postgraduate level, there are no research degrees, and no particular evidence of a research culture amongst staff," he writes.

Is then the University of Law actually a university? "Yes, say the authorities - by granting it university status. And moreover, waiting off-stage is the firm Montagu Private Equity. If their takeover succeeds, the University of Law will be a for-profit undertaking."

Although Professor von Prondzynski insists that he is not suggesting that having a rich subject mix covering all traditional disciplines is necessary to make an institution a university, he does question the legitimacy of the College of Law's transition.

"I believe that the future of higher education will involve much more in the way of institutional specialisation," he says. "But the essence of modern academic life lies in transdisciplinary knowledge and discovery, and it is hard to see how a single-issue college can cover that."

He also questions whether the new university "intends to be a player in new analysis and knowledge generation".

The value of the University of Law, or the quality of what it does, is not in doubt, the vice-chancellor continues. "I used to work with them quite closely when I was Dean of the University of Hull Law School in the 1990s," he states.

"But I am doubting whether it is a university, and I find it difficult to see what benefit is derived by anyone from this change of status. What this change does do, however, is to make it much more difficult to see what meaningful criteria, if any, should govern the granting of university status. Time will tell, perhaps."

Shortly after Professor von Prondzynski wrote this entry, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, recommended that 10 small specialist colleges be granted the university title, a move that would lead to "the biggest creation of universities since 1992".

The new universities, should they be approved by the Privy Council, include the Royal Agricultural College; Arts University College at Bournemouth and Norwich University College of the Arts.

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