The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay

Universities Ancient and Modern

Leave a comment

By Ian McNay

This seems to have been a recurrent theme in my life over the last three months, as well as a constant issue through working in a modern university occupying ancient buildings – anomalous, anachronistic and dissonant. One key factor recently was an invitation to contribute a piece to the Sage International Encyclopaedia of Higher Education on ‘Modern Universities’. I had 1000 words, so assumed it meant within the UK – a focus of other entries, in a publication mainly dealing with Anglo-Saxon countries. A mistaken assumption, but I defy anybody to compose a comprehensive coverage of the topic at global level in 1000 words. It has been accepted. The commission led to surfacing something of which I had been vaguely aware: all universities established or designated in the 20th century were secular. The last one with church links was Aberdeen, founded by papal bull and a charter from the local bishop in 1495, but also given a royal charter. In the 21st century, there have already been designations of 15 state universities which were, originally, church foundations, now labelled the Cathedrals Group, and claiming to be the only group in UK HE ‘based on ethical principles informed by faith-based values’. Heythrop College was also a member, but is now closing down; Trinity St. David’s is the only one outside England, and was formerly part of the University of Wales. Their main emphasis, reflecting history and the churches’ role in their communities, is teacher training, but they also have nearly half of the UK undergraduates studying theology and divinity.

Other newly designated universities also have narrow disciplinary bases, allowed by changes in criteria for designation; eight cover creative and performing arts and agriculture. The four private universities designated are similar – a focus on Law and Business and Management Studies, and mainly sold off to hedge funds based outside the UK, unconstrained by charity law or other checks and balances. As I have reported previously, some private HEIs differ in another way from the normative model: their student body has more men than women, a significant majority of BME students, and a mean entry age in the early thirties, not the late teens, so providing for a market segment under-represented elsewhere in the system, possibly conditioned by fee levels and debt aversion. At Coventry, the private arms in Scarborough, London and elsewhere were set up by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Ian Dunn in a separate structure from the university because the innovative features, enjoyed by students, would have been difficult to get approved.

That raises wider questions: is the current isomorphic state provision fit for all students, or, taking Ansoff’s strategy matrix, is it the same product for a new market for which it is less appropriate? The league tables promote a single model, with a characteristic of exclusionary entry levels preferred over diversity of access, for example. If we/you were establishing a university ab initio [the spell check changed that to ‘ignition’!], what would it be like

– to cope with the rapid growth in the 18+ age cohort in the next decade,

– with a projection by Graeme Atherton (Director of NEON) and colleagues of only 26 per cent of students from London being ‘white’, though higher elsewhere, and

– some of those with parents from elsewhere in the EU, countries with lower fees to which they might return for their higher education experience

– as well as developments in curriculum thinking and technology in learning?

Two ‘recent’ foundations have been very different: the Open University and the University of the Highlands and Islands. Do they offer lessons/models?

As it happens, other summer experiences continued the ancient/modern dichotomy.

A seminar at UCL IoE examined Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, which took it first students in 2010. It has an international academic staff (over 75 per cent are from elsewhere around the world) and student body – there are 20 flags on its website, aiming to get it high in league tables within 20 years. The emphasis is on research and graduate programmes – an MBA and Master’s awards in Education up to now. The only unit on which there are details is the engineering faculty, where all the listed research centres are located. It is also claimed as a ‘template’ university with an objective defined as helping other Kazakh universities to develop. There are about 40 of them, with mainly a regional focus and catchment. There is a problem: most of their staff do not speak English, the lingua franca of Nazarbayev [the university, not the president of the country], so there are communication issues in any ‘trickle down’ model. A second issue is that the new university gets over 25 per cent of the national HE budget. It is autonomous and has no reporting responsibility to the Ministry of Education, but may gain from lack of state control. There are echoes here of a recent article in World University News by Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit, for both of whom I have had a lot of respect. Their thesis is that most university academic staff should stop doing research, or not start, encouraged by closing down journals to make publication more difficult, and so, they claim, less likely to be a major pressure in academics’ lives. So, in Australia, just the Group of Eight, in the UK just the Russell Group [whose past pronouncements suggest they would support such a policy]. But, back to the question, which has system level implications: if you were planning a new university, would it build in research as an essential? Would a hierarchical system be good, or can diversity displace hierarchy, with different excellences recognised and rewarded? Does it have to have a significant international/global ethos?

I move on, to a holiday, in Portugal and Spain, which took in ancient universities in Coimbra and Salamanca, and modern, or at least younger ones in the Douro Valley, at Vila Real and a second one in Salamanca. Salamanca’s newer, private, university was founded by the pope when the state closed down the faculties of theology and canon law in the ancient one in 1854, though it did not get a charter until the 1940s. The new one took them over and now offers courses across the range of humanities and social sciences, with about 6,500 students. It has a world expert on dogmatic theology [is there another kind?] who recently won the Ratzinger prize. No science, technology or medicine; you have to go to the Pontifical University in Madrid for those. There is some confusion about identity because the pontifical university occupies old buildings in the city centre beside the cathedrals – the one to be replaced by the second has never been demolished and they are conjoined with entrance to the older [preferred by most visitors] through the newer. The walls of the university have names of doctoral graduates written in bull’s blood from the animal killed, cooked and eaten in celebration of success. Not done now, but a fee allows a name to be painted. ‘Fees’ triggers the memory that they are ten times higher in the private pontifical university than in the state university, now on the outskirts of the city and with approaching 30,000 students.

Coimbra is a major name in HE history in Europe, particularly during the Renaissance. It dominates the town both from its hilltop site and through its role as by far the main employer in the city. It has a Wow! library, where the books cannot be touched without official permission, and a chapel where the organ has 20,000 pipes, regularly played for masses, ceremonies and public events. There is a student uniform [really], of black and white, topped by a calf length black cloak, worn with one end slung over the left shoulder [not the right – that is a basic error]. A cross between Dr Who and Zorro. Personalised by badges showing students’ origins, disciplines and involvement in university life. After graduation, the uniform cannot be worn, except for the cloak on special occasions like selling souvenir pencils to tourists to help pay off debts, and singing Fado, the local folk music.

The modern university in this part of the review is the University of Tras-os-Montes and Alto Douro in Vila Real, Portugal. It was set up as a polytechnic in 1973, and given university status in 1986 because of quality research with relevance [there is still a strong polytechnic sector in Portugal]. It was founded for two reasons – to support regional development in a disadvantaged community; to provide a local institution of higher education, since other provision was difficult to get to – distance and under-developed infrastructure. So, initially, it was strong on agriculture, particularly viniculture, tourism, civil engineering (there are magnificent dams on the river) and such subjects as computing and business management to support them. Now it has 35 Bachelor and 38 Master’s courses across four faculties, and the region seems to be doing well, with EU funded projects very evident.

So, modern, or newer universities with a diversity of driving forces behind their establishment. In the UK, successive English governments have changed/reduced the criteria for designation, which has allowed smaller, specialist institutions to qualify, but also allowed privateers to gain a foothold in the sector. It could be that in the middle future, with demographic decline, the private sector will be enhanced by state universities deemed to be failing being sold off as ‘academies’ as in the school sector. That would accelerate the ‘small state‘ agenda. The other motivations have been the protection of an ideology/theology, also reflected in the rise of faith based universities in the UK, and a catalyst for high tech development and international recognition by an emergent nation and a power and glory driven dictator. I return to my earlier question: if HE continues to expand, possibly rapidly in many countries with increasing numbers of young people, what might be the defining characteristics of a university, to be fit for what purpose?

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s