Another Idea of the University: From Newman to Grayling

 [A version of this piece was published by The Australian on June 22 2011]

The recent announcement by A. C. Grayling that leading intellectuals in the UK are forming a "New College of the Humanities", where the likes of Grayling, David Cannadine, Richard Dawkins will teach humanities and social sciences to small classes, raises some pointed questions about teaching and learning in universities, both there and here.

Last year University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis said correctly that Australia only has "one kind of University", referring to the enshrining in policy and practice of the "research university". This model is intended to support national interest through pure research first and foremost, ideally supporting teaching on the strength of that research.

Yet the place of education itself has become an increasingly uneasy one in such a university. In the vision of Wilhelm von Humboldt, usually seen as godfather of the research university model, the student was a junior partner or peer of the researcher in the uninhibited pursuit of knowledge.

However, the mass educational systems of modern research universities can hardly aspire to offer such an experience for undergraduate or professional education. There is a widespread sense that the educational element of higher education has often come off second best. Many Australian university courses are run at a loss to the institution, which must cross-subsidize them from other activities. Academics know their futures depend not on outstanding teaching or mentoring but on certain measures of research performance; departments stand or fall less on undergraduate interest than ARC grant success.

Leading researcher Simon Marginson has called teaching and learning the “empty space” in the modern globalized research university, noting also that “student disengagement is a constant of the OECD countries” and that much learning actually takes place outside the classroom. So far there is uncertainty about the way to improve what is at best an uneven set of experiences for Australian students.

Does Grayling’s model have any promise here? Occasionally there is talk of a “teaching only” university as a possibility in the Australian future, but the implication has usually been that under-performing research institutions could be released into this category more as an act of kindness, than that education itself could become an activity attracting the same energy as research, or commensurate resources. We seem to lack, so far at least, the imagination to consider that teaching could be the point of some outstanding universities, and research a complement to it.

However, a university where teaching was central, and research also undertaken to support a vigorous community of learners, is an idea that deserves more attention in Australia. It is a model like some of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States, such as Smith College in Massachusetts, once headed by expatriate Jill Ker Conway, and numerous others. These institutions cannot replace the functions of the research university, but they can complement them.

Grayling’s nascent New College and those established US examples are all much closer to John Henry Newman’s famous Idea of the University than any Australian university. No-one imagines any longer that Newman’s is “the” idea; what is remarkable is that Australia’s burdensome accreditation and quality assurance processes would not accredit Newman’s ideal institution as a university at all, because it would not be focused primarily on research.

The problem, then, is not the research university per se but its sole claim to the field, and the inadequate resources it typically has, in Australia as in the UK, for its educational purposes. A second kind of university, or a regulatory and funding environment that could foster different ideas of the university, is needed. Australia may not see anything quite like the New College of the Humanities soon, but we would do well to watch its progress.

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