What is a University? by Richard Pring

What is in a name? Does it pick out some ‘essence’ – an idea to which those institutions, for example, universities, claiming to be manifestations of that idea, need to conform? If so, then we need to spell out what that idea is. Much depends on it. Thus, a degree is a mark of achievement awarded by a ‘univer-sity’, and its value, therefore, depends on the awarding body justifying that title. Again, governments financially support institutions which go by the name of university. By what criteria are they judged to be so? We have seen recently in Britain the growth of institutions which, because they have the title of university, are entitled to receive loans for their students, mainly from abroad, but questions have been raised as to whether they should be entitled to be so called. There are many different kinds of institutions which claim to be universities and to award degrees. But before we look at them, it may be worth trying to identify the idea or the ideal against which claims to be universities might be measured.

Perhaps we might start with John Henry Newman’s account in his much quoted book The Idea of the University, namely, ‘a place of teaching universal knowledge’. This is qualified by the claim that its objects are intellectual, not moral, and the ‘diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement’. By ‘universal knowledge’ is meant those different logical forms of knowledge (defined by their distinctive concepts, modes of enquiry, procedures for verifying the truth) by which we have come to understand the physical, social and moral worlds we inhabit. There is an inheritance of knowing, reasoning, appreciating which needs to be preserved and passed on to future generations. Such an institution (the university), therefore, would need to be broad in terms of the different disciplines of thinking which it offers.

Perhaps relatively few people are capable of this disinterested pursuit of knowledge and of gaining the wisdom arising from it. They, in Plato’s Republic, would constitute the ‘guardian class’, from whom would arise the ‘philosopher king’. They would, by reason of their education, form what the nineteenth century philosopher and poet, Coleridge, referred to as ‘the clerisy’, whose knowledge and wisdom prepared them well to lead others who were not so well endowed. And this was very much the view which shaped those early universities of which Oxford was a prime example, recruiting almost exclusively  from the ‘public schools’ those who were reared on the civilising curriculum of the classics. Such a sense of transmitted wisdom fitted them well to positions of authority  in Government  and in the civil service and indeed in the continuation of civilised values through their teaching. 

According to Herbert Warren, President of Magdalen College Oxford, in his evidence to the Royal Commission on Secondary Education in 1895, the student who has read Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics has whatever theory is necessary for the practice of teaching, especially  if he were an Oxford man, more especially the classical student. The corollary of this ideal, to be embodied in the university, was that training for a specific role or profession was not the aim of this disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

As John Stuart Mill argued in his inaugural address to St Andrew’s University, ‘there is a tolerably general agreement about what a university is not. It is not a place of professional education. Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their objective is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings’.