What are universities for?

Universities serve multiple purposes, and there has been an extensive debate around the question of which functions are the most essential.  Answers range in scope from ideals of liberal education focussed on the development of the individual such as was captured by Newman (1852), to aspirations of serving the common good (Marginson, 2016), as well as more vocationally focussed perspectives (Molesworth, Nixon, & Scullion, 2009)

In a Guardian article, Campbell (2015) asked “As school-leavers around Australia ponder their future, one student asks: should they go to university to become skilled for the workplace, or to become great thinkers?”; a question that has the sense of a zero-sum game.

As well, one cannot underestimate the impact of world rankings lists on how a university constructs itself as ranking systems contribute to corporatised decision-making by University leadership. Yet too few call to memory that university ranking systems were popularised in the early 1980s by US News magazine looking to boost sales, leaving an outsized legacy on how universities respond to non-academic produced ranking lists (Myers & Robe, 2009).

Whether you believe that universities still fulfil an Humboldtian liberal purpose of bildung and self creation (Anderson, 2004) or have been ground down to a compliance driven bureaucracy

Humboldt University, Berlin

My Opinion: I take the view that as we enter the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), universities best serve their graduates and society by promoting an intertwining of both liberal and vocational ideals that are 4IR aligned. 

Considering the disruptive changes the world faces, both these functions need to be considered to equip graduates to navigate and provide good leadership in a world that will be dramatically altered by the new technologies of 4IR. Vocational skills address the needs of graduates to work successfully in Industry 4.0. Liberal skills are required for good ethical leadership in 4IR.

I particularly like this speech by Pericles Lewis, founding president of Yale-NUE College, Liberal Education and Innovation (2014) that discusses the importance of liberal skills in our changing world.

“Technical education is extremely important for the development of industrial society, but in the post-industrial world, employers value skills such as creativity, the ability to ‘think outside the box,’ openness to multiple perspectives; and liberal education fosters these traits.”

Lewis, 2014

Your Opinion: What do you think universities are for?

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