What are universities for? Is their purpose to turn out students who are fit for jobs in the global marketplace? Or is it to educate the next generation to think for themselves? Moreover, should the state fund all courses equally? Or are some courses - for example, engineering - more useful to the economy and thus worthy of higher subsidies than classics and medieval history?
Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, is asking these questions, and getting himself into a lot of hot water in the process. Suddenly, the bloom is off the Clarke rose. Academics - and teachers, for different reasons - are incensed at the Education Secretary's impromptu remarks.
The row surfaced earlier this month when a speech that he made at University College Worcester came to light. "My central argument is that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change," he declared. The medieval concept of a university as a community of scholars in search of the truth was not sufficient justification for the state to put money into higher education, he argued.
The newspapers pounced. The first headlines (for example, "Clarke lays into useless history") had him attacking medievalists. That was wrong, he said. Ever since, he has been in correction and reinterpretation mode. He was not criticising the study of medieval history, he insisted, but was questioning how the state justified its spending on universities. The academic world is in uproar. Vice-chancellors of old, established institutions are as critical of his views as the principals of those that are more vocationally oriented.
Whether or not Clarke was attacking the study of medieval history in the speech, he was certainly proposing a quintessentially instrumental view of higher education. "I fundamentally disagree with him," says Sir George Bain, vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast. "I am a very strong opponent of the notion that some subjects at undergraduate level are more useful than others." There is a good reason why companies want to hire graduates with degrees in philosophy or English, he thinks. It is because they are good at getting on with others, are innovative and imaginative.
Roger Brown, director of Southampton Institute, agrees with Sir George. "I think the Education Secretary's position is completely wrong," he says. "The only view of higher education is to study and disseminate knowledge for its own sake. One of Charles Clarke's arguments is that university education needs to be relevant to modern society, but universities are all about helping us to decide what is relevant and what not."
Although higher-education experts agree that universities need to equip students for the labour market, they believe that they also need to train them to think and to analyse. "You want to teach people to be sceptical," says Professor Tim O'Shea, principal of Edinburgh University. "A questioning and sceptical turn of mind is extremely valuable, and a study of classics is a perfectly good way to achieve this." Universities are about creating and transforming knowledge, and it is very difficult to predict ahead of time which knowledge is going to be economically useful, says O'Shea. For example, universities have been researching number theory to a high level for a long time, and undergraduates have been taught the subject, too. But it was a while before it was realised that number theory provides the foundations of modern cryptography.
Ironically, the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) is also wary of the line being taken by the Education Secretary, and has drawn up a statement with four other industry/university groups outlining what the role of higher education should be. (For details, see www.cihe-uk.com). "The Government is in danger of thinking too much in instrumental terms," says Richard Brown, chief executive of the CIHE. "They are interested in how public funding results in improved national wealth and improved employment prospects for individuals from all social classes. That is a worthwhile aim, but it can't be the sole aim. Learning can't just be about getting a better job and higher wages. That's certainly not right."
The debate highlights the role that government plays in higher education in the UK because of its central role in funding the system. According to Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University, ministers should be trying to make universities freer of the state, as they are in the United States, not toying with the idea of further regulation. That way there would be a broader range of players deciding on the purpose of higher education and how it should be funded. "Higher education in the US is so strong because universities are more independent," he says. "Charles Clarke should not be thinking aloud about the university system in this way. Instead, he should be making considered statements."
'We might have medieval seekers after truth as an adornment to our society'
What Charles Clarke said in Worcester:
"The other day I heard a vice-chancellor argue that the purpose of a university was the unfettered pursuit of truth and excellence. Another distinguished academic wrote a paper in which she argued that we should get back to a medieval concept of the university as a community of scholars unfettered by difficulties and problems of the wider society. These are perfectly legitimate approaches and justifications that stand up in their own account as to what institutions do and how groups of scholars come together. They don't add up to a justification for how the state provides resources for universities in the modern world. I have to ask, as a guardian of these resources, why the state should fund universities and what is their value. My central argument is that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change. I argue that what I described as the medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth is not in itself a justification for the state to put money into that. We might do it at, say, a level of one per cent of what we do now and have one university of medieval seekers after truth as an adornment to our society. But I don't think that we will have the level of funding that we do now for universities unless we can justify it on some kind of basis of the type I have described."