What is a university for?

Universities must adapt to the sharp realities of the present

In a world where global information is available at the hit of a button, is there still a role for universities?


Or in an era of fake news, rumour mills and data-mining, where assessing what is true is becoming harder, does society need the skills a university can teach more than ever?

The West of England is fortunate in having four successful and largely complementary universities. My university – Bath Spa – provides, alongside Bristol University, UWE and the University of Bath, four powerhouses offering huge potential for our region as a whole: our businesses, our culture and our young people.

But in a world of fake news, of disturbing rises in mental health problems amongst our students, and in a country facing the biggest cultural shift in 40 years as the UK anticipates leaving the EU, it seems like a good time to ask a rather obvious question: what exactly are universities for?

There have been many answers to this over the centuries. It’s fairly obvious that the university of 100 years ago - even 20 years ago - is not what the university of today needs to be. But think back just four years ago. David Cameron was Prime Minister and had just won an unexpected majority. The first African-American President was confidently expected to soon be followed by the first female President. And hardly any of us had heard the word ‘Brexit’. How times have changed!

Given this, I believe in the UK of today, universities need to fulfil four important roles:

First, we need to help students develop and hone their talents and skills, whatever these may be. The university of today needs to provide a stimulating, supportive environment which enables our students to flourish. That means delivering brilliant teaching, but also recognising the competitive world in which young people find themselves.

As a university, our role is to reflect young people’s way of doing things now, as well as their way of learning, not a previous generation. This means we must modernise our teaching methods to help young people develop the skills the World Economic Forum identified as key for success in the twenty-first century: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.

Secondly, universities must be active partners in driving innovation. For example, all four universities in our region are now collaborating with organisations such as Audible, Aardman and the BBC on several multi-million pound, government-backed projects, supporting the Bath-Bristol region as a centre of excellence for the creative technology sector, driving progress in virtual reality, entertainment, modern manufacturing and design. These are the sorts of world-beating skills and sectors which our region and our young people need; the skills and knowledge that will enable them to excel in fulfilling, rewarding lives after university.

Thirdly, universities must be places of research. Good research changes the ways we understand, perceive and interact with the world. Many, if not most, of the commercial ideas which now shape our world started life in a university – think of the internet and the World Wide Web. And I don’t just mean scientific research. We also need research in the arts and humanities, because we need our students and our universities to think the world better.

Finally, universities must be of value to the location in which they operate. I believe that universities must play a role in the communities in which they are situated. There still seems to be a false dichotomy drawn between universities and 'the real world'. At Bath Spa, all of our courses engage with business and commerce in some way; that's a resource of thousands of dynamic, ambitious young people adding to the energy and expertise of our region.

A version of this post first appeared in the Western Daily Press on Thursday, 22 November

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.



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