Reading: What are Universities For?


As Stefan Collini notes in the introduction to What Are Universities For? attempting to define these institutions might seem superficially simple but quickly becomes complex and political. Universities combine a staggering array of facilities and abilities, and fulfil a huge number of functions. In some respects they are progressive, far seeing institutions, in other respects they are conservative and incorporate practices firmly rooted in their distant past. In tracing these contours and attempting to answer the title question, Collini is neither nostalgic for a lost past nor entirely negative about the future (although I think he clearly sets out his views on the current direction of higher education, for example the neoliberalisation of universities). The result is an engaging primer on the current educational landscape and a compelling argument for the importance of universities in a time of immense change. What Are Universities For? is broken into two sections, of which the first half really felt the most relevant and so I’ll primarily discuss that here. The second part appear to be reprints of earlier essays on higher education and at least from a skim read these chapters felt less relevant than those that preceded them.

In the first chapter Collini discusses the university in light of globalisation and the rapid expansion of the university model. In doing this he begins already to question the virtue of trying to define universities, institutions which may need to differ greatly with geography. He also notes the tendency to attempt to define university’s in relation to other organisations and institutions, and points out that while they might sometimes overlap with the activities of other organisations they will rarely operate in the same way. Collini cites the similarities and differences between university research and that of the private sector research labs as an example of this divergence. The second chapter is a short overview of recent university history, with Collini observing the tendency for contemporary commentators and politicians to view higher education as having lapsed from a former glory and being in desperate need of return to that state. As well as charting the evolution of the modern university, from the University of Bologna to the English polytechnics via Humboltd’s University of Berlin, Collini effectively demonstrates that universities have undergone such rapid change in the last century or so that it’s difficult to speak of any era when it was a stable institution on which today’s institutions might be desirably modelled.

Next, Collini revisits John Henry Newman’s 1852 book The Idea of a University. Newman, a priest instrumental in founding the Catholic University of Ireland, argued that a university’s focus should be on its students and that education should be broad in subject and liberal in atmosphere. These ideas have been highly influential, but for Collini their influence and repetition is itself problematic, evidence that thinking about higher education practice can become bound unquestioningly to a canon consisting of thinkers and texts which sometimes predate the foundation of modern universities by a considerable time. Collini while admitting he is not impervious to the book’s charms, offers a critique of Newman, attempting to strip away the class and gender assumptions of Newman’s era. Chapter four continues some of the threads begun in the previous chapter, of the supposed distinction between useful and useless subjects of study. Some of Newman’s arguments would seem to suggest that if education is to be more than a process of simply credentialing people for future jobs then no such distinction between useful and useless is really possible at all. Collini continues this idea, discussing the public misunderstanding of the form (much less purpose) of the humanities and the common pressure for these subjects to make themselves less esoteric and more accessible (while in doing so paradoxically often opening themselves indeed to the inverse criticism of being lightweight subjects). His conclusion in defence of the humanities, that it is really ‘an end in itself’ [p.85], feels rather weak even though I agree with his view that these subjects are as much about learning to understand others and live your life as they are about more practical or emplotable skills.

For the final chapter in this first section Collini summarises some of the previous points and makes a case for universities as a public good in spite of their ‘semi-marketized, employment orientated’ [p.87] condition today. Collini argues for the importance of defending universities from their sceptics, but also warns any attempt to justify something is bound to look rather defensive, and that therefore the ways that universities are defended must be carefully considered. Equally in the urge to defend universities we may end up inaccurately defining them to satisfy their critics, in effect making matters worse by giving people an unrealistic sense of what universities are for. Collini in the end seems to suggest that a good strategy is to challenge the terms of the question, particularly the tendency to measure university value in economic terms, and to view economic output as an end in itself. If, he argues, the purpose of a strong economy is that it allows us to do the things that matter, then we need to be clearer about what these things are, and perhaps the pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake is one of them. All in all Collini’s book makes for insightful and informed reading on the evolution of university’s into their present state and attitudes both within and without about what these diverse institutions might be for. While I sometimes sense he falls into his own trap of feeling under pressure to overly defend universities to a sceptical audience, and while he also writes inevitably from a very specific political standpoint, What Are Universities For? is a thoughtful and at times quite beautifully argued case for higher education as economic stimulus, social good, and end in itself.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer.

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