There has been a great deal of discussion recently regarding the role of universities, and to what extent governments should fund their national icons. Recent economic pressures have seen some universities take drastic steps to prune their budgets. The reactions of students in some quarters have been positively scary. What then is the purpose of a university? It is an ivory tower, a processor of people, a moneymaking business - or should it perhaps aspire to more?
The traditional independence enjoyed by many of the world’s great universities created a culture akin to a closed system. Rituals and traditions developed as the possibility of outside intervention faded, and today these almost have the force of law. Chancellors continue to enjoy the same prestige as presidents and prime ministers, and so they should, because they hold the nation’s treasure in their hands. Is that all a university should be though - a magnificent mausoleum to an exemplary academic past? The purpose of a university should be surely more than that, as universities everywhere will agree.
Perhaps the job of a university is to preserve a chain of knowledge and educational experience that stretches back to founding days. It certainly has a role to play in guiding government on policy, and in producing the skills needed to implement this too. But what happens when a government starts telling a university what it shall and what it shall not teach? It ceases to be a full-blown university then, as universities everywhere must agree.
Maybe a university is just another business after all, with a niche market and a product that others buy. Perhaps the saying is still true that if you need to know the price then you cannot afford to pay it. Certainly, universities go out of their way to make life pleasant for their students, and treat them like the special people that they surely are. There is an element of truth in this, but is this all there is to education? I doubt that universities anywhere will agree
The purpose of a university is surely to build a bridge of skills across which every student rich or poor can walk towards to a better life. Of course, a university must preserve traditions, and of course, it must contribute to the nation’s wealth. A university must also be fiscally responsible. Students have been partying for a thousand years and more and have not failed en mass. However, if a university is not also every generation’s slingshot to the future, then it will have failed, and failed tragically too.