Book Review: Universities and Colleges – A Very Short Introduction


The book is written by David Palfreyman and Paul Temple, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCHEPS) and Reader Emeritus in Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, respectively. Through this book, the authors explore the origins and the concept of a university, and explore issues facing the future of these institutions and the questions surrounding their position and role within our society today.

The twenty takeaways I got out of this book are:

  1. Universities have been around in Europe in something vaguely resembling their present form from 900 years, so a historical dimension is inevitable. They now exist in recognizable forms (though with important local variations) in nearly all countries of the world, so an international dimension is also necessary. They undertake a range of tasks that at first sight don’t have obvious connections, and they typically have unusual internal arrangements – so a functional analysis is required. How they are financed (how much, paid by whom) varies considerably, and is often a matter of controversy: these are key issues in ‘the politics of higher education’. They perform roles associated to the social structures of the societies in which they are located, and now, in most countries, they are seen as essential drivers of economic growth – so there are sociological, political, and economic aspects to understand.
  2. Universities and other tertiary education institutions have over the last few decades, come too be considered, by both national governments and international agencies, as key elements in what has become known as the ‘knowledge economy‘ (or more grandly, the ‘knowledge society’). In the near future, there will be multiple overlapping ideas of the university, reflecting the growing significance and variability of knowledge production and dissemination throughout all modern societies.
  3. Versions of the ‘university’ existed in Greece and China some 2,500 years ago and the concept of a centre of higher learning survived in Arab countries during the so-called Dark Ages of 500-1000 CE across Europe. But the model of the modern university began its long evolution from its creation about 1,000 years ago in medieval Western Europe.
  4. The derivation of the worduniversity‘ is from the latin universitas, meaning ‘the whole’; and the earliest recorded usage is from 1300. This idea of ‘the whole’ might refer to ‘the whole body of teachers and students pursuing, at a particular place, the higher branches of learning (as the Oxford English Dictionary definition puts it); or it might refer to the idea that knowledge, the business of universities, is, ultimately, indivisible – a whole.
  5. There are more students than ever before: over 150 million in over 17,000 institutions around the world, and this number is growing all the time – with over thirty million students in China; some thirty million in India; more than twenty million in over 4,000 colleges and universities in the US; and more than two million across 150 or so institutions in the UK. Moreover, an increasing number of students are not at a ‘particular place’, as the OED definition had it: they are distance-learning students, linked digitally to a university that itself may have a few, or no, students physically present; or, in the US, they may move from one campus to another, picking up credits towards a degree.
  6. Universities crucially contribute to the ‘knowledge society’, partly by all delivering a steady flow of graduates as (hopefully) employable human capital; and partly by the creation of economically exploitable intellectual property through the scientific and technological research and innovation that goes inside them.
  7. For most universities, everywhere in the world, their main task is teaching high-school leavers. The other two best-known , and connected, functions of universities are research and postgraduate teaching – a third, called ‘service’ in the US, exists in terms of academe and academics contributing to the economy and community.
  8. Slicing the university cake – one horizontal slice, running through first-degree and postgraduate teaching, scholarship, and some types of research, would reveal what is sometimes called the emancipatory model of higher education, or the idea of liberal arts education. Another horizontal slice  would reveal the professional formation model for a university – most university students are bound for a profession, in the broad sense of the term, even those not studying an obviously professional course such as medicine, law or engineering. Few history students become professional historians, but many do enter careers where the analytical and presentational skills of the historian are in demand. Another horizontal slice through the higher education cake shows the university as a society’s principal research engine.
  9. The disciplinary idea – Students generally come to a university to study one or more subjects, which academics like to call ‘disciplines’ and which form the basis of university organization. What are, and what are not, ‘university subjects’ remains a matter of debate, linked to changing ideas about the nature of knowledge itself. Also, academics mostly consider themselves to have a disciplinary affiliation. Other areas of knowledge which require inputs from different disciplines may not develop into separate disciplines, but may continue to be seen as interdisciplinary (or transdisciplinary – there is a technical distinction) fields.
  10. Because there is no correct solution to the problem of how to organize knowledge-based organizations, university structures are the subject of almost constant review and change. However, the ‘academic department’ usually remains a fairly stable feature of a university’s structure – its basic building block.
  11. How universities and colleges work – the university everywhere continues to be dominated at its core by its teaching activity, of undergraduates first degrees and of graduates taught Master’s or research degrees. Universities are complex operations with complicated workings, trying to fulfill a multitude of (potentially conflicting) tasks and expectations, with a variety of demanding stakeholders – suffering from sometimes byzantine governance structures, facing an articulate and vociferous faculty not always entirely engaged with the corporate mission, called upon to solve  society’s problems while also being accused of being part of this problem, supposed to serve a student customer who may not readily be able to ascertain what he or she really wants from higher education. Indeed, it is not always clear who governs and manages a university.
  12. Academic standards are ‘predetermined and explicit levels of achievement which must be reached for a student to be granted a qualification’. Academic quality, on the other hand, ‘is a way of describing the effectiveness of everything that is done or provided by academic institutions, to ensure that the students have the best possible opportunity to meet the stated outcomes of their programs and academic standards of the awards they are seeking’. So quality is a process that could be broadly similar in all universities, whereas standards are benchmarks, which may, and do, differ between universities.
  13. In the rapidly evolving global economy, universities are called upon to meet needs that go far beyond those of the long established professions. Just as university research produced the electronic computer and most of the rest of the digital world, so today it is busy producing the currently unknown economy of tomorrow.
  14. The university has over centuries proved to be capable of re-inventing itself while also broadly retaining its core shape: teaching within the academic subject or discipline relying on its key employees (faculty); and being self-managed (perhaps sometimes doing so just too closely or collegially).
  15. What are the mission and shape, the structure and culture, the purposes and ambitions of the university in the coming decades? What is it to ‘be’ a university now and what is the university now seen ‘to be for’? What might change by 2050? Is it a matter of steady evolution, careful adaptation, gentle reinvention? – or a future of instability and disruptive innovation, of radical change, of absolute transformation? Clark Kerr once noted that, of the eighty-five entities in the Western world created by 1520 and which still existed 450 years later, seventy were universities… Whatever we write by way of predicting the future of (or indeed a possible range of futures for) the university will (almost) certainly be wrong – that is about the only certainty in the art of prediction.
  16. A young person entering university in 2020 will probably be at the peak of his or her career in around 2050: even at the current rate of social and technological change, he or she will certainly inhabit a different world. The formation of capital, however, could be achieved by means other than the universities we have come to know over recent centuries – in principle, anyway, although it seems not to have happened significantly in practice so far. But human capital theory explains only part of what universities do. As we noticed, higher education performs a sifting or selection process for employers and others, sparing them the tedium and cost of selecting from the population at large and permitting them to look only at the smaller proportion who have successfully negotiated the hurdles set by higher education. And there is more to it: graduating from certain universities acts as a signaling process, showing that you are part of an elite group of graduates – this supports the perpetuation of national elites and the universities from which they came.
  17. An associated concern is the financial vulnerability of some universities, and indeed of entire higher education systems, if the global flow of lucrative high-fees international students is interrupted by geopolitical shocks – and especially where there has been massive borrowing to fund campus renewal and development. The recent signs of reaction against globalization generally, including the international movement of students, would spell financial disaster for some US, UK and Australian universities.
  18. Universities may seek their particular niche in a more diversified higher education marketplace; but segmentation may be encountered by the tendency of universities towards isomorphism (i.e. all seeking to be like each other) and filiopietism (i.e. all seeking to be venerable institutions such as Harvard or Oxford).
  19. A broader issue is whether higher education growth has now peaked in many rich countries – although there may be opportunities for universities to offer courses for the increasing proportion of the population entering the ‘Third Age”, either as recreation or as re-skilling for re-entry to work at least on a part-time basis.
  20. The best universities (or rather key individuals within them) are constantly challenging existing knowledge, criticizing the status quo. This makes them more ready to adapt to change than most other organizations, public or private, which typically find it difficult to cope with criticism, either from within or externally. As Kerr remarks: ‘universities can change fast while pretending that nothing has happened’.

As the authors state, ‘the university has had to adapt to a future with new market demands, now in a marketplace: a marketplace that is local, national and global. But in adapting and changing the university or college must remain utterly committed to its historic core values’.

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