What’s the point of university?

I’m teaching my first Great Christian Thinkers class on Friday, and because it’s meant to be a course that orients my students to their degree as a whole and we’re opening on the theme of ‘What Matters Most?’, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the purpose of university; both what they want to get out of their degree and what a range of other people and institutions might want them to get out of it. I’ve pulled together some short extracts for them to discuss as part of the session, and thought they might be of interest to others: you are welcome to borrow and/or adapt these at will.

The university has always been a thief, stealing people’s labor, time and energy. We charge that the university-as-such is a criminal institution. We understand the university today as a key institution of an emerging form of global, racial capitalism, one that is a laboratory for new forms of oppression and exploitation, rather than an innocent institution for the common good. From its pirating of Indigenous biomedical knowledge to the marginalization and containment of non-traditional inquiry, from the training of corporate kleptocrats to the cronyistic production of private patents, from the university’s role in gentrification and urban enclosures to the actions and implications of its investments and endowments, from the white-supremacist and eurocentric knowledge it exalts to its dark collaborations with the military-industrial complex, the university thrives on its thievery.
Anonymous, ‘Undercommoning: Within, Against and Beyond the University-As-Such’

Tony Blair’s target of getting 50 per cent into university was a pernicious exercise in social engineering. A graduate degree does not necessarily lead to a graduate job. There is a chasm, for example, between the number achieving legal degrees and those receiving training contracts. Where do they end up? Presumably in careers far less lucrative than the law.

This is not true everywhere: there is huge demand for engineers and scientists, and evidence that higher tuition fees have incentivised students to take courses more likely to result in better pay. But given that universities face no real downside to churning out enormous numbers of unemployable humanities graduates, we’re rapidly creating an educated, bitter underclass with ever more devalued degrees. With the earnings premium from a degree declining too, this isn’t about debt but prospects.
Tom Welsh, ‘The Left will continue its resurgence so long as too many go to university’

It is about the distinction sketched by St. Augustine between uti [to use] and frui [to enjoy]. Uti supposes that one works at a thing for some other purpose than the thing itself. Frui implies enjoying the thing itself and for its own sake, without assigning it to an external end, in other words, experiencing the end, the accomplishment, absolutely.Education for (and by means of ) universal science therefore has a clear ethical justification: to attain an end, which ultimately comes down to the human being himself who does the work, and not a finality that is external to that work … It is therefore advisable to educate man for his well-being, for the good itself and for nothing else—for his own good and for that of others, instead of just teaching him information about what does not concern him directly, the things of the world, or objects of ambient unreality.
Jean-Luc Marion, ‘The Universality of the University’

What purposes, what general social ends should be served by higher education? … We begin with instruction in skills suitable to play a part in the general division of labour … Secondly, the aim should be to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women. Thirdly, we must name the advancement of learning … The search for truth is an essential function of institutions of higher education and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes of the nature of discovery … Finally there is a function that is more difficult to describe concisely, but that is none the less fundamental: the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship.
The Robbins Report on Higher Education, 1963

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.
bell hooks, ‘Teaching to Transgress’

Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities) ‘Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education’ … Children may be best placed to judge what they want to get from the sweetshop, but they are not best placed to judge what they should get from their schooling. University students are, of course, no longer children, but nor are they simply rational consumers in a perfect market.
Stefan Collini, ‘Browne’s Gamble’

I’m hoping that there’s enough to provoke and enough contradiction in this selection to get my students thinking about the contradictory desires and pressures that they’ll face down over the course of their degree studies, which in turn should set us up nicely for the theme of the rest of the class and the course as a whole: suffering. But please feel free to add your own comments and suggestions in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “What’s the point of university?

  1. What an interesting collection of readings, your students are in for a treat! I would say the point of university is learning how to think, and to provide the time and space to do so apart from the pressing needs of the real world. But I realize that raises more questions than it answers, not least the concerns of ‘thievery’ brought up in the first, anonymous, excerpt.

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