Policy Papers

The ‘Idea of a University’ today

Robert Anderson |

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Executive Summary

  • The idea of a university in which teaching and research were combined in the search for impartial truth reached classic form in nineteenth-century Germany, and eventually became the dominant model.
  • Other features of the model were intellectual freedom in research and teaching, university autonomy, the growth of independent disciplines with their own standards and priorities, and internationalism.
  • This concept of the university flourished when education was the preserve of a social elite. The Robbins report (1963) sought to democratize the model without radically changing it, and until the 1980s university expansion was contained within this pattern, with polytechnics providing an alternative ideal.
  • The end of the binary system in 1988 brought together liberal and vocational forms of education. In Britain, unlike many other advanced countries, policy is opposed to the recognition of hierarchies within the higher education system, though in reality there are wide variations of social and intellectual prestige.
  • Research has increasingly become detached from teaching, and the concentration of research funding widens the divisions within the system. Demands for research to be economically and socially relevant challenge accepted views of academic freedom.
  • A particular social dilemma in Britain, exacerbated by marketization and the introduction of fees, is how to avoid returning to a situation where the best universities, still holding to the traditional 'idea of the university', are the preserve of social privilege. What policies should be pursued to preserve democratic access to the best higher education and to match individual talent to intellectual opportunity?

The Robbins report and the Oxbridge model

In 1963, the report of the Robbins committee on higher education proclaimed the 'Robbins principle', that university places should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment. The report also discussed the nature of higher education, and defined four 'objectives essential to any properly balanced system'. The first objective, a utilitarian one, was 'instruction in skills'; but universities must also promote the 'general powers of the mind', to produce 'not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women'. Thirdly, while the balance between teaching and research might vary, teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth, since 'the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes of the nature of discovery'. Last came 'the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship'. This remains a political preoccupation today, as 'social cohesion', though it was easier in the 1960s to assume that Britain did have a common culture and that everyone knew what it was. The Robbins committee argued that as the number of qualified students grew, to what now seems a modest target of 350,000 by 1980, they should have access to the same type and quality of education as their predecessors. They did not envisage any fundamental change in the nature of university education, and were criticized in later years for promoting a luxury university model, based on Oxbridge, which emphasized residence and the close relations of teachers and taught, a model which proved financially unsustainable once higher education moved from expansion of elite privilege towards mass entitlement.

The Robbins-Oxbridge model represented a very English 'idea of the university', also embodied in the 'plateglass' or campus universities of the 1960s, the first of which, Sussex, opened in 1961. At that time it was an almost universal assumption that universities should be communities, in which the moral influence of residential life and social interaction outside the classroom were as important as formal instruction. The redbrick universities founded in the Victorian era, and the Scottish universities, were now condemned for their 'nine-to-five' character, and conformed to the new ideal by building halls of residence and adopting more personal methods of teaching. Leaving home as an essential part of the student experience remains a cherished feature of the British university ideal today.

Newman's 'Idea of a University'

This ideal can be traced to John Henry Newman, who gave the title 'The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated' to a series of lectures originally given at Dublin in the 1850s. Newman thought that knowledge should be pursued 'for its own sake'. But by this he did not mean pure research. For him the search for truth was part of an educational ideal which shaped the personality of the cultivated man, and was inseparable from moral and religious education. This ideal required a pastoral relationship between teacher and student, and it derived from Newman's early experience as a college tutor at Oxford.

Newman thought that the personal gifts needed for research and teaching were quite different, and that research was best conducted outside universities. He also described the university as a place of 'universal knowledge', in which specialized training, though valid in itself, was subordinate to the pursuit of a broader liberal education. These ideals, later developed by other Victorian apostles of culture like Matthew Arnold, became the basis of a characteristic British belief that education should aim at producing generalists rather than narrow specialists, and that non-vocational subjects - in arts or pure science - could train the mind in ways applicable to a wide range of jobs.

The Humboldtian ideal: a community of scholars and students

The phrase 'idea of the university' was not invented by Newman, but goes back to a seminal period in modern university history, the reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt in Prussia. Starting with the University of Berlin, founded in 1810, the 'Humboldtian' university became a model for the rest of Europe, and by 1914 German universities were generally admired as the best in the world. It was the Humboldtian model that shaped the research universities of the United States, which head the international league today. The Humboldtian university can be seen as the characteristic form of the university idea until the growth of mass higher education in the late twentieth century. It had a number of interlocking features, some new, some inherited from the past, and was inevitably marked by the deep forces of the age, including nationalism, secularization, the growth of the modern state, and the shift of social power from aristocracies to the middle classes, on the basis of merit, intellectual expertise, and professionalism.

The central Humboldtian principle was the 'union of teaching and research' in the work of the individual scholar or scientist. The function of the university was to advance knowledge by original and critical investigation, not just to transmit the legacy of the past or to teach skills. Teaching should be based on the disinterested search for truth, and students should participate, at however humble a level, in this search. Hence the classic view that the university was a 'community of scholars and students' engaged on a common task. Humboldt's influence is still felt in the assertion that research must be an integral part of every university's activities. But for Humboldt, research was ancillary to teaching, and the specialized research which became the basis of the German universities' reputation was a later development. It was only in the twentieth century that research came to be seen as a vital activity in itself, contributing to industrial progress, military strength, and social welfare, and requiring collaborative rather than individual effort. In Britain, this came quite late: even in the 1960s, the plateglass universities were most notable for their experiments in teaching. The current emphasis on research as the primordial purpose of universities is a recent phenomenon, reinforced by the British obsession with league tables; but the international research university, at its wealthiest and most formidable in the United States, is a model which only a few institutions in any national system can sensibly emulate.

The era of the elite university

The union of teaching and research reflected the restricted social mission of the elite university. It was based on the assumption that the subjects taught in universities had a corpus of theory and knowledge which needed to be kept up to date by current research. This model suited training for the 'learned' professions - law, medicine, and the church -to which 'liberal' education gave a distinctive ethos of service and social responsibility. Universities, recruited mainly from academic secondary schools which excluded the masses, controlled access to elite posts and higher social status. This credentialling function was strengthened by the growth of professionalization, and it has steadily expanded as new occupations have become professionalized. But the logic of this, based partly on snobbish prejudice against merely useful or money-making occupations, was that vocational or technical subjects which did not fit the professional model were excluded from the university sphere.

At the time of Robbins, university education still reached only four or five per cent of the age group, and led chiefly to the professions or public services. It was not until the 1980s that the participation ratio passed 15 per cent, which is generally seen as the tipping-point between elite and mass education. For a time at least, expansion was fuelled by lateral expansion to a wider range of middle-class careers as much as by the democratization of access, to the point where graduation has become the badge of middle-class status itself for both men and women. But as university participation reaches forty or fifty per cent, the question arises whether the older university model was so bound up with elite education that it is no longer relevant.

University autonomy and academic freedom

Some other features of that model should be noted. One is that since their earliest days universities have been international institutions. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they did not escape the powerful force of nationalism, and politicians looked to them to shape national identity and serve national interests. Yet the cosmopolitanism of science and learning survived. This would not have happened if the model did not possess some inner vitality. A second feature was that universities enjoyed a measure of corporate identity and autonomy, even when the central state appointed and paid professors and dictated curricula. It was in response to this pressure that the modern idea of 'academic freedom' appeared, and in many countries it has been included as a specific freedom in national constitutions. The idea really has two aspects. First, individual scholars and scientists should be free to pursue the truth, and to teach and publish their findings; objective science, following rigorous intellectual criteria and subject to what is today called 'peer review', would immunize universities from religious or political interference. The professionalization of science and scholarship, and the organization of knowledge through specialized disciplines, created internationally accepted standards and gave scientists and scholars wider loyalties. In democracies, academic freedom came to include the right of academics to be active citizens, and to pronounce on political questions, making universities the home of public intellectuals, and a creative and independent cultural force.

Secondly, universities should enjoy autonomy as institutions, governing their own affairs internally and making their own decisions on academic matters. Humboldt argued that universities did their work best, and were most useful to society and the state, when they were isolated from immediate external pressures. Although the nineteenth century was the golden age of laissez-faire capitalism, no-one then suggested that universities should be run as commercial organizations. It was seen as a virtue that, like the professions, they stood outside the system of market relations and cultivated values of a higher and permanent kind. This sort of autonomy was an aspect of classic liberalism, which saw the best protection of liberty and diversity in a pluralist civil society of self-governing institutions. Neoliberalism, which seeks to dismantle all barriers against the operation of pure market forces, has proved rather different.

The most authoritative recent restatement of the Humboldtian idea is the Bologna declaration of 1988, signed by the heads of most European universities, and described as 'the Magna Carta of the European universities'. The first Bologna principle was that the university is an autonomous institution, with the distinctive mission of embodying and transmitting the culture of its society: 'research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power'. Second came the principle that teaching and research must be inseparable, and third that 'freedom in research and training is the fundamental principle of university life'. Finally, the charter declared that the university is 'the trustee of the European humanist tradition', a European version of the Robbins view that the university must transmit a common culture.

While British university heads were signing this Magna Carta, the British government was undermining university autonomy. The Education Reform Act of 1988 abolished the University Grants Committee (UGC), which had acted as a buffer between state and universities since 1919, and which shared the university ethos. After 1988, though there were still funding councils as a more feeble barrier against direct state control, the way was open for political priorities to be enforced more directly. Other aspects of the 1988 Act, which followed a business-minded White Paper of 1986, reinforced managerialism within the universities at the expense of academic self-government, making them more responsive to outside pressures, from corporate funders, donors, and the media as well as the government.

Recent reforms and diverging missions

The 1988 Act paved the way for the abolition of the binary system and the grant of university status to polytechnics in 1992. The boundaries of the university sector had always been carefully policed, and new university colleges usually had to wait twenty years or so before being given the right to award their own degrees. The Robbins committee wished to preserve the distinct status of universities, but it envisaged a generous policy of promoting technical colleges. This was rejected politically, however, and from 1965 the binary policy diverted expansion into reorganized polytechnics and their Scottish equivalents. No new universities were founded between then and 1992. For nearly thirty years, therefore, the 'old' universities were sheltered, under UGC stewardship, from economic or social demands which might challenge traditional university values. By 1992, it could be argued, the polytechnics had served their apprenticeship and won their university rights. But since then, the criteria have been relaxed further. The union of teaching and research becomes problematic when degree work embraces every sort of training, regardless of whether it can be linked to a research base, or whether it makes sense to demand research activity from all those who teach it.

Does this matter? It might not if, as in the United States, there was a clear and well-understood hierarchy of institutions, ranging from internationally famous research universities to local community colleges. The problem in Britain is that all universities are squeezed into the same mould, and financed on the same basis. Afraid of charges of 'elitism', no government dares openly identify a higher tier of institutions which deserve special support, and the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) became the de facto way of doing this - leading, many would argue, to a devaluing of the teaching which should balance it. Yet within the supposedly undifferentiated university system, an older hierarchy of social prestige and intellectual reputation survives. Age still counts: the self-selected Russell Group of twenty research universities contains only one university founded in the 1960s (Warwick), and none founded later. At this level, many of the old values remain, and there is a strong desire to keep them alive. The days of autonomy under the UGC survive in the folk memory of academics. 'Golden age' thinking, looking back to an ideal past whose actual locus is hazy, is a feature of 'ideas of the university', but golden ages are not always mythical. Perhaps the central issue is the quality of the student experience, of which the staff-student ratio is the measure. At the time of Robbins, one to eight was seen as the norm, and this was more or less maintained until the 1980s. Other features of the idealized picture include the ability of academics to determine their own research priorities and devise their own courses; the equal valuation of teaching and research; personal relations between teacher and student; the dominance of discipline-related single honours degrees; well-prepared students, with generous grants which meant that they did not have to combine work and study; academic self-government and collegiality within universities; and collegiality between them, seeing universities as engaged in a common task rather than competing with each other.

British universities have good reason for feeling that utilitarian views of their role threaten the ideal of disinterested intellectual inquiry. The Dearing report of 1997 was part of this shift, reflecting the political view that in an age of globalization competition in the 'knowledge economy' was the most important task of a higher education system. While Dearing certainly reasserted many of the classic principles of university education, the report also endorsed the idea of students as customers, a very different concept from the 'community of scholars and students'. The political response to Dearing pushed such ideas further, refusing to use the language of idealism and higher purpose.These were Europe-wide developments, and in 2000 the leaders of the European Union meeting at Lisbon drew up a similar agenda for the 'European Higher Education Area'. This was followed, in 2007, by the Lisbon declaration of the European Universities' Association, the latest statement of collective official purpose. The Lisbon declaration could be seen as an updating of Bologna, and it still asserted the need for university autonomy, but its wording tended to water down the clear declarations of 1988, and to defer to the managerial and economic priorities of governments.

Current dilemmas

It is not only in Britain, therefore, that academic pundits have diagnosed a crisis, possibly terminal, of the Humboldtian university. There is nothing new, it is true, about universities being expected to serve economic ends. German universities were admired and imitated in the nineteenth century because their scientific research seemed to contribute directly to Germany's industrial success. Arguments in terms of international competition drove British university expansion both before the First World War, and at the time of Robbins. The real question is how far the response to economic demands should be driven by priorities determined outside universities, rather than by curiosity, originality and the internal development of disciplines. A knowledge economy depends on the quality and independence of the knowledge, and intellect can only be a creative force when it is free. Thus this question involves classic issues of academic freedom and autonomy.

It is not so clear that this is true of universities' accountability to social demands. Governments are sometimes accused of 'social engineering' when they seek to use universities to bring about social change. But universities have had social functions ever since their foundation. However much one may speculate about the inner essence of universities, it is impossible to imagine any real university as an 'ivory tower' existing outside its historical and social context. Sometimes universities are expected to preserve society as it is by reproducing the existing pattern of power, sometimes to change it. The reform of Oxford and Cambridge in the Victorian era, which wrested these universities from the aristocratic and Anglican grasp and remodelled them for a new middle-class elite was a prime example of social engineering. So was the reform of the public schools in the same period, and the creation of state grammar schools in the twentieth century.

British universities have come to think that control of their own admissions is essential to university autonomy, but this is a local and recent peculiarity. In most European countries, and in many parts of the American system, access to the local university is open to all who have the standard school-leaving qualification, and can pay whatever fees exist. This was also true in Britain until demand for places intensified after the Second World War, but the introduction of selection, mainly through examination results, has created a specifically British problem. The universities which can select the ablest students tend also to be those which have an international research reputation, which enjoy the highest social prestige, and which lead - as several recent studies show - to the most desirable jobs in the professions, in the City, or the media. These are also the universities where the traditional 'idea of the university' persists most strongly. Access to them is currently skewed by social class, and this is a legitimate concern of governments at a time when social mobility seems to be frozen or even diminishing. Modern societies still have elites, as well as routine graduate occupations, and it is important for efficiency as well as social justice that they should be drawn from all social groups, and that working-class and non-traditional students are not concentrated in the lower reaches of the system. Yet to modify the seemingly objective criterion of selection through examination results, by invoking other indications of potential, may dilute intellectual standards and provoke a backlash, especially from independent schools whose appeal to parents depends on guaranteeing good exam grades.

In the Robbins era, democratization meant widening access to what remained an elite form of education. But in less than fifty years, the age participation ratio has risen from four to over forty per cent. This is an irreversible change in the nature of higher education. Is it possible to conceive a new 'idea of the university' which can make sense of it? During the heyday of the polytechnics, in the 1970s and 1980s, some leaders in the sector developed a 'polytechnic philosophy' which made a virtue of their differences from traditional universities. They argued that polytechnics inherited a longstanding tradition of service to the community, and that their priority was not the pure pursuit of knowledge but solving practical problems and helping their students to gain qualifications. 'Academic drift' towards the 'autonomous' university model was something to be resisted. This vision of 'people's universities' drew on ideas of education as an instrument of personal emancipation which had deep roots in the British left. Elements of it have perhaps survived in teaching-led universities within the enlarged system.

An alternative vision on offer is marketization, the hope that demand and competition will remould universities in a new pattern. But it requires great faith in the powers of the market to believe that demand - whether of students for qualifications, of employers for skills, or of the economy for innovation - can produce a coherent shape for such complex institutions as universities, which operate in the realm of values and culture, which are concerned with key political issues like citizenship, identity and social mobility, and which are the only organizations equipped to produce fundamental research free of short-term pressures. Issues of academic freedom, from 'political authority and economic power', are far from obsolete, and are raised again by the proposal that in the RAE's successor, the Research Excellence Framework, economic, social and public 'impact' will be part of the assessment. Apart from seeming to devalue 'blue skies' research, this is likely to drive a further wedge between research and the teaching which research should support, and to harm the international ranking of British universities. For the 'idea of the university' is a cosmopolitan one, and in the contemporary world, especially in the sciences, research priorities and prestige are defined by the international disciplinary community, not by national governments.


The idea of a university which combines teaching and research and develops the 'general powers of the mind' as well as giving specialized training has three possible fates. First, it could be extended with only minor compromises to all parts of a mass higher education system. This was the Robbins vision, but it makes excessive demands on resources, and seems unnecessary for much vocational training. Second, one may declare the Humboldtian university dead, consign it to the past, and fit all universities into a utilitarian and managerial mould; that is how pessimistic critics see the trend of policy under recent governments. Thirdly, there can be more open acceptance that universities have different missions, interpreting the idea of the university in different ways - on condition that access to research-led universities is fair and democratic, a stipulation unlikely to be met if they are privatized or allowed to charge market fees. The American example - and the Californian tripartite system in particular - suggests that embracing differentiation is healthier than denying it. The disinterested pursuit of knowledge and the ideal of liberal education seem currently in better shape there than in Europe.

If we seek guidance from the past, it is better to see the 'idea of the university' not as a fixed set of characteristics, but as a set of tensions, permanently present, but resolved differently according to time and place. Tensions between teaching and research, and between autonomy and accountability, most obviously. But also between universities' membership of an international scholarly community, and their role in shaping national cultures and forming national identity; between the transmission of established knowledge, and the search for original truth; between the inevitable connection of universities with the state and the centres of economic and social power, and the need to maintain critical distance; between reproducing the existing occupational structure, and renewing it from below by promoting social mobility; between serving the economy, and providing a space free from immediate utilitarian pressures; between teaching as the encouragement of open and critical attitudes, and society's expectation that universities will impart qualifications and skills. To come down too heavily on one side of these balances will usually mean that the aims of the university are being simplified and distorted.

A version of this essay was published in K. Withers (ed.), First class? Challenges and Opportunities for the UK's University Sector (London, Institute for Public Policy Research: 2009). See the IPPR website.

Further Reading

Robert Anderson, British Universities Past and Present (London, Hambledon Continuum: 2006)

Malcolm Tight, Higher Education in the United Kingdom since 1945 (Buckingham, Open University Press: 2009)

Sheldon Rothblatt, The Modern University and its Discontents: the Fate of Newman's Legacies in Britain and America (Cambridge, University Press: 1997)

Sheldon Rothblatt, Education's Abiding Moral Dilemma: Merit and Worth in the Cross-Atlantic Democracies, 1800-2006 (Oxford, Symposium: 2007)

Peter Scott, 'The idea of the university in the 21st century: a British perspective', British Journal of Educational Studies, 41 (1993), 4-25

Thorsten Nybom, 'The Humboldt legacy: reflections on the past, present, and future of the European university', Higher Education Policy, 16 (2003), 141-59


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