BOOK REVIEW: “What Are Universities For?” by Stefan Collini (2012)

What Are Universities For?" by Stefan ColliniI am very grateful to my friend, Philip Warwick, for suggesting this excellent book, which is a fascinating discussion on the purpose and the role of universities.  From the start, Collini points out the paradoxical situation in which universities find themselves today.  Never in history have they, as higher education institutions, attracted so many students, and yet universities increasingly spend large parts of their time justifying what they do. 

Key Words

Education, Higher Education, Management Education, Universities, Academia, Research, Strategy.


Universities face many challenges today.  The debate over whether higher education as a public or a private good is probably as old as the university itself.  Clearly, Mr. Collini comes down on the public good philosophy, and sets out to show why some of the arguments for a private good are, in his opinion, counterproductive.  In fact, there are huge differences today within the industry.  As Mr. Collini points out, though a professor in Singapore may have plenty of resources, a professor in medieval history in Ohio might be struggling to find the necessary funds for his department.

Higher education private or public?

Is Higher education private or public good? Stefan Collini elaborates on this topic.

Since Mr. Collini works in a British university, it deals largely with higher education in the UK.  One chapter is even the history of British universities.  Universities from across the world get a fleeting mention, but still, many of the arguments hold true, whatever part of the world you are from. The second part of the book is a series of essays that have been written over the pat ten years, and given as lectures for the BBC.  Aside from being a well put together argument, it is extremely funny, not to mention bitingly sarcastic sometimes.  Take for example Mr. Collini’s definition of what he does.  He states:

I work in the knowledge and human resources industry.  My company specializes in two kinds of product.  We manufacture high-quality, multi skilled units of human capacity, and we produce commercially relevant, cutting edge new knowledge in user-friendly packages of printed material.

University obsession with rankings

Mr. Collini studies the obsession modern-day universities have with rankings.

He describes the mission statements of most universities as being a cross between “an extended dictionary definition of the term ‘university’ and an advertising brochure from an upmarket health club.”  He also takes on the obsession with research output in modern-day universities by stating that the father of modern-day philosophy, Socrates himself, would have deemed to have been non-research active by a modern day commission, given that he never bothered to write down his teachings.  Similarly, he looks at the obsession modern-day universities have with rankings, and the mythical creature that looks over disapprovingly at the modern-day university, demanding proof that it is useful.  This beast is known as the taxpayer.

You may not agree with all of the book and all of Mr. Collini’s ideas.  Of course, if you read a book, and agree with every single idea, and don’t want to jump in and give your opinion at one point, you clearly don’t work in academia.

Stefan Collini talks about his book


Interesting Quotes

Universities across the world in the early twenty-first century find themselves in a paradoxical position.  Never before in human history have they been so numerous or so important, yet never before have they suffered from such a disabling lack of confidence and loss of identity.

Universities are among the very few institutions whose rationale includes selecting and shaping their own future staff. Schools educate everyone: it is not a distinctive part of their remit to form and prepare future school-teachers.

It has often been remarked how, in some of the larger American universities with proud sporting traditions, the football coach is more highly paid than the university’s president.

The fashion for slapping the adjective ‘global’ in front of a wide variety of nouns often simply indicates a mixture of slackness and hype. The word has come to be treated as a more dramatic-sounding synonym for ‘international’.

Vice-chancellors now keep as nervous an eye on league tables as do football managers.

One of the most satisfying aspects of a crossword puzzle or a chess problem or some elementary arithmetic questions is that you can achieve a kind of closure: you can not only find the one right answer but you can know that you have done so. Very little about work in the humanities is like that. 

One only needs to think of the empty, portentous prose of that representative genre of our time, the ‘mission statement’. The message of most of these dreary documents can be summarized as “We aim to achieve whatever general goals are currently approved of.”

University as a selective institution

Throughout their long history, universities have been selective institutions.

Throughout their long history, universities have been selective institutions: at different times selective by religious, vocational, or political criteria, nearly always selective in terms of social class, and in the course of the twentieth century increasingly selective by intellectual aptitude.

Mythical creatures tell us a lot about a society’s hopes and fears: they are often a way of externalizing and giving dramatic force to desires and anxieties that are in some way resistant to frank acknowledgement. The mythical beast that haunts this particular discussion is ‘the taxpayer’.

After all, two of the most important sources of efficiency in intellectual activity are voluntary cooperation and individual autonomy. But these are precisely the kinds of things for which a bureaucratic system leaves little room.

It is a mistake to think that if you make people more accountable for what they do, you will necessarily be making them more efficient at doing it.

Intellectual vanity in academia

In Academia, intellectual vanity is a much stronger motivating force than money.

Anyone who has mixed much with academics will know that, at the individual level, intellectual vanity is a much stronger motivating force than money.

Take, for example, the not very contentious question: was Socrates an important philosopher? I don’t believe that the average ancient Athenian taxpayer was in a position to give much of an answer to this question.

In Britain, entrance to a university is almost the only widely desired social good that cannot be straightforwardly bought.

I work in the knowledge and human-resources industry. My company specializes in two kinds of product: we manufacture high-quality, multi-skilled units of human capacity; and we produce commercially relevant, cutting-edge new knowledge in user-friendly packages of printed material.

Unless these guidelines are modified, scholars in British universities will devote less time and energy to this attempt, and more to becoming door-to-door salesmen for vulgarized versions of their increasingly market-oriented ‘products’. It may not be too late to try to prevent this outcome.

Margaret Thatcher

During the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives reduced funding for universities.

In the course of the 1980s and 1990s, U.K. Conservative governments deliberately reduced the level of funding while increasing student numbers: in the years between 1989 and 1997 alone, as the Browne Report itself acknowledges, “universities experienced a drop in funding per student of 36%.”

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Filed under Book Review, Business Schools, Education, Great Britain, Higher Education, Strategy

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