What is a University?
A university is an autonomous community
of students and scholars. It’s one of the great institutions of the modern world,
of course its history goes right back to the Middle Ages and even earlier.
Universities now come in many shapes and sizes. In Britain, because we’ve had
relatively few universities and in England we had only Oxford and Cambridge
for 600 years, that has become the kind of dominant picture of what a university
should be like, but there are also universities with very different
missions, focusing on vocational and technical education, for example,
closely linked to the local economy. Some of them specializing in particular
disciplines, be it creative arts or engineering and the sciences and provided
they have the academic standards to be able to call what they provide
‘higher education’, then we should welcome the progress that we’re making in many
more of them taking that great title ‘university’. Universities are incredibly
important institutions in the modern world and you can argue that they boost
the growth rate, they transform the lives of students, but of course knowledge is
also worthwhile in its own right, as Newman said in his great ‘Idea of a
University’. So, yes they have great utilitarian value, but they are
also institutions of great inherent value, not least because their strength
and their autonomy is one of the best protectors we’ve got of crucial freedoms,
including of course freedom of expression.