What are universities for?

February 16th, 2015

I have been riding a bit of a hobbyhorse about the shortcomings of universities (particularly those in the UK, I’ve less experience of those elsewhere in the world) for a good few years, but it’s taken me a while to settle it into anything like a coherent argument until recently. So, here goes…

What are universities for? I think we might traditionally argue that they are about the pursuit of knowledge, and the distribution of that knowledge to wider society – both via teaching, and via outreach, consulting, spin-off companies, research collaborations, media appearances, expert witnessing and all the other ways that practicing academics share their knowledge with others. They have their origins in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, and the lecture, with one person speaking andh students taking notes, was originally the only cheap way by which books could be copied: the lecturer dictated from the original, and the students wrote it down. Of course, lecturers took to sharing their margin notes and other thoughts and this evolved into teaching.

But what are they really for? My suggestion is that the 21st century British university is in the business of the pursuit and distribution of reputation rather than knowledge. Let’s unpack that. As an undergraduate student, I apply to study a subject at university partly because of my intrinsic interest in the subject, and partly because I hope very much that having a university degree will help me to get a job. In fact, I choose to apply to the University of Somewhere Famous, because I know that having a degree from U. Famous enhances my reputation much more than a degree from U. Nowheresville would ever do. The admissions tutor eyes my application with a view to deciding whether I, the prospective student, am likely to enhance the reputation of the university in the short, medium and long term. If so, they award me a place. Having worked to complete the course, and hopefully learned something about the subject and some transferable skills along the way, I leave the university with my BSomething from U. Famous, and find that indeed, the borrowed reputation of the university helps to open doors. Once I begin my paid work, the reputation transfer starts to go back the other way – my career helps to enhance the reputation of U. Famous, especially if I go on to be a Notable Alumnus. But even in a graduate level job, the positive experience of my colleagues and managers of my skills and knowledge shapes their impression of U. Famous, and thus I start to pay back the reputation that was loaned to me on my degree certificate.

Of course, universities also undertake postgraduate study and research, but I would argue that these, too, are now about the pursuit of reputation. PhD students are the indentured apprentices of academic research, undertaking much tedious gruntwork on behalf of their supervisors whilst being paid relatively little, and all because of the pursuit of the reputation that a U. Famous PhD will bring them. The lucky few will enjoy the experience, and the majority will feel that it was probably worth all the sleepless nights, frustration and despair in the end (you can tell that I’m a little bitter about my PhD!). But the transition to postgraduate study makes the reputational transaction more complex – if the research results in published papers, that enhances the university’s reputation as being a centre for research (and, in the UK, can directly influence the amount of funding it receives). The new doctor that leaves and seeks a job outside academia benefits from the university’s reputation, and the reputation of the institution of the PhD itself, in their new career, and again repays that reputation to the university as their career progresses.

For those that stay to be post-docs, and those appointed to be faculty, it has become ever more clear that their role is to enhance their personal reputation, and that of their group, department and university, as quickly and effectively as possible. This means bringing in more and larger research grants, publishing more and more peer-reviewed papers, and (perhaps also) speaking in public or in the media where they will of course be credited as “Dr X from U. Famous”. The actual research outcomes matter not – in fact, the overwhelming majority of academic research is in obscure and niche fields specifically so that they can ensure ease of publication. Generating reputation allows the university to enhance its income through sponsorships and donations, build nicer facilities, attract better undergraduates, and (in many places) charge higher fees. There are several cases now where academics have been sacked for failing to generate sufficient grant income – that is, failing to enhance the reputation of their institution sufficiently quickly – and so the idea of the pursuit and sharing of knowledge plays very much second fiddle to climbing the reputational greasy pole. The deepest irony is that the pursuit of research reputation often means that the best and brightest researchers can ill afford time to teach the undergrads and supervise the postgrads who come expecting to benefit from their knowledge, experience and reputation.

I should also briefly mention that the plight of the post-doctoral researchers, caught on short term contracts with very little job security and precious little hope of being appointed to a permanent role. Most university departments give menial jobs to post-docs (writing and indeed printing and stapling lecture notes for a professor, in the case of a friend of mine) because it looks better to employ more post-docs than it does to employ proper support staff (or to pay for the university’s own support departments on the internal market). The universities exploit the need for post-docs to continue working in their field for the sake of their own personal reputation in order to swell the reputation of the university itself.

So, what’s to be done? I might suggest that we break apart the “teaching” and “research” aspects of universities into separate but closely-linked institutions. The teaching institution concentrates on undergraduates, and employs those who primarily enjoy teaching. The research institution undertakes research and employs researchers. There will be those who enjoy both, and they are primarily employed by one institution and have part of their time bought out by the other. The management and funding structures are separated, so that neither aspect can be crowded out by the other. On the research side, I would end the pursuit of heavily metric-based management of research, and ensure that research institutions have a steady flow of basic funding to pursue “national capability” research, with project grants awarded on top. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t think the present situation is sustainable for too much longer. Universities need to be freed from the pursuit of reputation to re-focus on sharing knowledge with wider society.


7 Responses to “What are universities for?”

  1. Pete Bleackley Says:

    Universities began as communities of scholars, and I think that’s the Idea of a University (reference to Blessed Cardinal Newman deliberate) that we need to go back to, rather than the political idea of the university as a “qualified people factory”. I think, however, that a link between teaching and research is a vital component of that community.

  2. Mike P-J Says:

    Pete: much as I respect your ideal, I don’t think you can remove the present-day status of a university degree as an entry ticket to the majority of white-collar jobs – not unless you said that you were going to close >75% of the universities we now have. The link between teaching and research is great when it works, but I meet too many academics who strongly prefer one aspect over another, and the present system is heavily biased against good teaching.

  3. William Connolley Says:

    > So, what’s to be done?

    You’ve described a situation. Much of what you say I can agree with. But what you haven’t clearly delineated is why this is a *problem*. Good Uni’s do indeed attract good students and both sides do indeed gain. There’s a bit of a risk that once you’ve got in you start to slack, confident that even a 2:2 from Cambridge is a ticket to ride. But (I’m reliably informed) this is far more of a problem in Japan than here.

    I also think you’re strongly idealising the state of Uni’s in the Middle Ages. That’s a long period, the largish number of names you might be able to think of are spread pretty thinly.

  4. Mike P-J Says:

    William: as ever I can rely on you to tease out where I’ve not thought something all the way through ;-)

    My concern is that universities are now not effective centres of research because of the high-stakes way in which research is funded and the lack of good career progression for early-career researchers. I’m also concerned that this also prevents them being centres of good teaching, because the pressure is to produce research output metrics. So, having created a situation where a university degree has gone, in the last 70 years, from being something awarded to the wealthy or the exceptionally scholarly to a situation where it’s now the entry ticket to ~50% of entry-level jobs, we run the risk of spending a lot of public and private money on a system that doesn’t produce good long-term research and scholarship *and* doesn’t produce good education for the undergrads who are required to have a degree in order to get skilled work. If reputational transfer is all it’s doing, it’s not good value for money, and not a good use of young talent.

    I’m well aware that the universities existed largely to benefit the wealthy (either alive or dead – through praying for their souls) in Days of Yore. Did you know that Isaac Newton could only afford to attend Cambridge by being another wealthier student’s manservant?

  5. William Connolley Says:

    > Did you know

    Yes :-)

    I feel (well, especially now I’m out of it) much less concerned about the problem of getting good research done, because I think that a large fraction of the really good and valuable research is done by a tiny fraction of the people; its massively non-linear. Conversely, that most of those “struggling” for tenure, positions, grants, are, well, sadly, not going to be missed for their research potential. That’s a very harsh way of putting it; I could sugar it at greater length if you liked.

    The ones I’d worry about, in terms of research, are perhaps those brilliant individuals who don’t even consider research but are off to be Quants or whatever; but its hard to even imagine the kind of re-ordering of the university system that could keep them.

    I agree with you about the shift in meaning of degrees, and your “the entry ticket to ~50% of entry-level jobs”. Perversely, of course, I interpret that a support for my viewpoint: since that’s what (most) degrees are for, nowadays, we should treat them as such, and arguably do. No-one considering employing someone with a 2:1 in maths from Durham cares if they can prove the monotone convergence theorem; what they want is the (reputational) assurance that the person is reasonably bright, numerate, and capable of following procedures to some extent.

  6. admin_user_1 Says:

    William: I thought you probably would…

    If you’re looking for assurance that somebody is “reasonably bright…etc”, why do they even need to have gone to university? You could appoint some eighteen year old straight in on the basis of their A-level results, given your criteria as stated.

    On the research side, your position seems to be “oh, the majority of work is mediocre and of little value, but there are a few geniuses who make up for it”. So why do we bother continuing to fund the mediocre at all? Why not just create a prestigious insitution for a hundred or so geniuses selected on the basis of an examination or submitted portfolio (a la All Souls, Oxford)?

    My experience of research in both quasi-academic institutions and in company R&D departments is that the real value is from the network effect of bringing together a number of people and disciplines, and encouraging them to work together. This works best in a smallish institution (~200 people) with good support staff – whereas universities are much too large to do this well these days. The pressure to publish discourages exploratory and interdisciplinary work in favour of grinding out mediocre variations on existing well-understood themes within ever narrower fields. I think it’s a waste of public money and a waste of good talent, that’s all.

  7. William Connolley Says:

    > You could appoint some eighteen year old straight in on the basis of their A-level results

    Indeed you could. But for a variety of reasons, its become the norm to go through university first. I’d support a move away from the university-for-all model, but I suspect its too entrenched.

    As to research… well, there’s demand. From people who want to do research. From professors, who need people to do work, and to be there to fill grants so that profs look good from having grants. And the system, while not very generous to these people, kinda accepts funding them, because there is a constituency for it. Perhaps the world would be better if the system were harsher. But if the system employed fewer, but at higher salaries, then the competition for places would be fiercer, and I’m not sure the right people would win.

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