The (Other) Idea of a University

Debates about the nature of a University usually involve the “liberal” model represented by John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, and a more pragmatic ideal that emphasizes the needs of society and training for the professions.

University education usually needs both (the Growing Esteem strategy for the University of Melbourne establishes a place for each. Its new undergraduate degrees will emphasize “breadth and depth”, including requirements for interdisciplinary study, while professional and research degrees, geared solely to graduates, will serve for vocational outcomes).

Yet an alternative pair of “ideas” of the University offers particular challenges in the Australian context. In Newman’s era, there were two quite different aspects of the University. One was the experience of “going up” to Oxford or Cambridge, living as a member of a College and reading particular subjects. The other was examination and attainment of a degree, which not all students sought or were even eligible for. This measure of accomplishment assumed and did not replace the fundamental experience of being a part of the University and its life.

When Newman asked the basic question “What is a University”, he emphasized community rather than curriculum; the University is “the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot”. Australian Universities, however, have tended to assume the reverse, thinking of the University as defined by examinations more than experience, by curriculum more than – or even without - community. Educational achievement, and University degrees in particular, are supposed to reflect the examination of knowledge or skill but not the educational experience that might have led to the degree. The degree itself has become supposed guarantee of a standard, a mechanism to indicate the parity of widely (or even wildly) different experiences, rather than symbol of one held in common.

One reason for this separation of examination from experience has been geographical isolation. Australians have been particularly adept at finding ways to deliver – literally – information across great distances, long before the internet ushered “distance learning” or “flexible delivery” into the vocabularies of educators. The need to organize and recognize these forms of teaching and learning added to the distinction between experience and examination we inherited from the English tradition.

Another distinctive Australian factor is the unevenness of Collegiate or community life. Since the forms of common life that distinguished Colleges once seemed necessarily religious, they provided a means for the “sandstone” Universities to assert their essential secularity, dealing with religion in a “co-curricular” fashion. The cost of this approach was the marginalization of community life and the emphasis on experience that Newman and the other great figures of nineteenth-century University theorizing, such as Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Eliot, took for granted.

For Australians, University education became the inculcation and examination of a body of knowledge, not the experience of being a community of learners. To an extent that would not so readily have been countenanced in the UK, the USA or Europe, University education in Australia came to be seen as focussed on the lecture hall alone and on the absorption of a canon of knowledge, rather than also on the dining hall and the exchange of views across disciplines and perspectives.

Recent developments in Australian Higher Education have underlined the problem. I myself went through undergraduate education, about twenty-five years ago, without the benefit of a Collegiate experience. I did have access to community life through an active Student Guild, and I was also in the Honours program of a relatively small department where students knew one another, and the most senior academics as well. Now, increases in class sizes on the one hand, and the gratuitous VSU agenda on the other, have threatened the broader forms of community life as well as the narrower academic collegiality necessary to the formation of would-be scholars.

The recent controversy about English standards among international students in Australian Universities was revealing on this issue, as much for what it did not say about student experience. The research itself and the press reporting that followed raised questions about standards – of examination and inculcation of knowledge – but not about the enormously varied experiences of those international students.[1] A system that encourages the creation of storefront campuses accredited by distant Universities is certainly not focussed on student experience. We must even wonder whether it is still possible to speak meaningfully in general terms of “University education” in Australia.

American poet and teacher John Ciardi said that “a University is what a College becomes when the faculty loses interest in the students”. In the American context these words have a slightly different meaning, but there is a message for us here too. A University that does not understand what educational community provides has lost more than just an interest in students. Colleges may yet be part of the answer.

[1] Bob Birrell, “Implications of low English standards among overseas students at Australian universities”, People and Place 14/4 (2006)


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