Pontifications along a road less travelled. OK so what is university for anyway?



So you’ve seen the picture, what is it all for anyway?
I mean, what is university for? Obviously universities do think that at least part of the reason that they’re there to do vocational training. Otherwise we wouldn’t have them producing doctors, teachers and youth workers. All these professions are very ‘hands on’ and with all of them you probably learn far more when you’re actually doing the job than you did at university or college or whatever. But without that piece of paper, the degree certificate, the meal ticket, you won’t get the job that the degree barely qualifies you to do.

But actually it’s a much bigger debate.

To quote a Guardian article that says it rather well. “For Humboldt, a German philosopher and diplomat, a university was to do with the “whole” community of scholars and students engaged in a common search for truth. For Newman, it was about teaching universal knowledge. For Robbins, an economist commissioned by the government of the time to draw up a report on the future of higher education, universities had four objectives: instruction in skills, promotion of the general powers of the mind, advancement of learning, and transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship.”

In the US the debate also continues. To quote evolllution.com, “The purpose of higher education in the United States has been a topic of debate for many years. We have a 200-year tradition of the liberal arts where colleges are focused in preparing individuals for productive contribution through character development. More recently there has been a demand that there be a greater focus on career development. It is in the resolution of this tension that we progress in improving the enterprise of higher education.”


I hate to say it folks, but even I as a simple farm boy know that running a process you don’t understand, seeking results you’ve never actually decided upon, isn’t any way to guarantee success.


So let’s go down the list.

“A community of scholars and students engaged in a common search for truth.”

Well that one’s dead in the water. In a world of no-platforming and similar, the search for truth in anything but technical fields incomprehensible to the political active is doomed.


“About teaching universal knowledge.”

Almost by definition, there’s too much knowledge out there to teach it all to any one person any more. Even the stuff that is agreed universally is spread across mutually incomprehensible fields.


“Instruction in skills,

Well we can do that. ‘Doctors and teachers exams must pass, if err they wish to rise above the working class…..’


“Promotion of the general powers of the mind.”

The may well happen. But if it does, does it happen to all, some or just a few? And how do you do it reliably anyway. Indeed are the university staff in contact with students trying to do this anyway?

“Advancement of learning.”

This probably happens on an individual level. Everybody comes out of university knowing more, even if all they’ve learned is that it was an expensive way to put off serving fries in McDonald’s for three years.


“And transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship.”

Don’t even go there. Stand up and say that in some universities and you’ll be no-platformed.


“Preparing individuals for productive contribution through character development.”

I think this is one most people would cling to. Back when less than 5% of the population went to university it might even have been possible to achieve. But now in many courses there may not even be the personal contact time between educator and the individual student for the educator to know a student well enough to know what their character is, never mind develop it.


“A greater focus on career development.”

Some courses are career orientated, always have been. But with some courses the only career they open up directly is teaching the course either at university or at a simplified level in school.


In simple terms, at some point between the age of sixteen and twenty-one you become an adult, and have to first support yourself, and then perhaps go on to help support a family. This basically happens whether you go to university or not.

In fact a cynic might comment that it might be more likely to happen if you don’t go to university.

So for some people it will make sense to take some sort of course in that period which will enable them to enter their chosen career.

But for others it’ll make far more sense for them to enter employment and then pick up education as you go along. I know men in their forties who’ve worked since they were sixteen and who hold the recognised equivalent of a university degree and a masters degree.

For others again university might be the place for them to go in their middle years with the children left home and the mortgage about paid off. After all people will be looking at an active and working life stretching into their seventies. So three years in university when in your fifties, bringing to the table a wealth of lived experience, could be far more useful that when you’re in your late teens.


But whilst this model might suit us, will it suit the university industry which is just geared up to pile an ever increasing number of students through, mortgaging their futures to fund and justify its current existence?


No academics were harmed in the writing of this book


As a reviewer commented, “These are four excellent short stories introducing the early days of Benor. Each tale pulses with humour as the well-drawn characters engage in various adventures. Each story features great dialogue, lots of good food, wine and ale, all taking place in a believable and well-drawn world where the streets pulse with life. The reader gets a powerful sense of being there in a real world with real people going about their real lives.

I look forward to reading the next book and wish I’d read this one far sooner.”

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6 thoughts on “Pontifications along a road less travelled. OK so what is university for anyway?

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt July 31, 2018 at 2:46 pm Reply

    I’m in that small subset of students who absolutely had to go straight through college and graduate degrees to end up in my chosen profession of fusion research. I had a rocky time in grad school, and our first jobs were working essentially for the government (through a different university) doing research, not on basic science, but for the Navy and submarines – they wanted trained scientists, and culled them from the ranks of PhDs who didn’t get the academic and research jobs we thought we were training for (and which I was fortunate enough to move into in my second job).

    But I realized later that the programs train enough students to keep the universities open and THEIR professors fully employed – but produce approximately 10 times more new PhDs than could ever be absorbed. So they are lying to you from the very beginning: most (90%) of their students will have to find other employment than what they’re trained for.

    Companies and government programs employ these redundant PhDs, and a few teach lower level schools, but we are not told only the best will get post-docs and move on to follow their teachers, and it would have been better if we’d known from the beginning. But then I bet a bunch would drop out, and then the universities wouldn’t be able to retain their professors.

    • jwebster2 July 31, 2018 at 2:53 pm Reply

      Yes the flow of students and the money they bring with them is essential to provide for the salaries of professors, university vice-chancellors and the rest. Even within the universities there seems to be a split between those who’re kept dangling on low paid short term contracts sweetened with the promises of better, and those who have their feet firmly under the table and their noses deep in the trough
      I fear we’re sacrificing the dreams of a generation to keep the standard of living up of a few

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt July 31, 2018 at 2:59 pm

        I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything – even as a grad student, getting to work on huge research machines like the Wisconsin Levitated Octupole was a real trip. I got compliments on my ability to assemble a vacuum system that didn’t leak, and a look of horror from a more advanced colleague when I assembled a circuit he designed – with only blue wires (it worked, but he kept shaking his head).

        It was a heady time – and we were the BOTTOM rung on the ladder, but got to pretend once a year to be grownups and present our work at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society, Plasma Physics Division. In suits.

        What people do with a PhD in philosophy or literature who don’t teach, I have no idea. We at least had a whole bunch of research and practical skills (programming) which had people end up in fields like finance and banking.

        Before you’re tied down with kids is the time to spend all that time on a passion and I’m glad I did.

  2. jwebster2 July 31, 2018 at 3:04 pm Reply

    You know the joke
    The science major asks “Why does it work?”
    The engineering major asks “How does it work?”
    The business major asks “How much will it cost?”
    The liberal arts major asks “Do you want fries with that?”

    I don’t knowingly know anybody with a PhD in philosophy or literature. But those who have the degrees who are in jobs seem to be in the civil service or retail

  3. Linda Sutherland July 31, 2019 at 10:31 am Reply

    A few random thoughts, from one who went through uni in the days when (we were told) about 5% of school-leavers did:

    1) the emphasis in the arts courses then was on ‘critical thinking’. The subject was secondary, the important thing was to demonstrate that you could use what you learned to build a reasoned, evidence -based case. A fellow student actually switched to an arts course from medicine, saying that the medics course just meant memorising and regurgitating facts, the arts course required you to think for yourself;

    2) at some point after my time, vocational studies that used to be an alternative to uni or a follow-up to a degree were elevated to degree level. Nursing, teaching, librarianship, probably lots of other things. I’ve never seen the point of that, they’re all routes that benefit as much if not more from practical experience as from desk-based learning, and ‘boosting’ them to degree status didn’t and couldn’t change that;

    3) I was going to write more, but other things intervene!

    • jwebster2 July 31, 2019 at 12:16 pm Reply

      Yes a lot of things that are very practical are being taken to degree status. The one I have most connection is Youth Work. The problem is that you have to make sure the student goes to the right university where they make sure you cannot get the degree without passing the work you do out in the field
      With the best degrees a minimum of a third of the time is hands on in the field. But of the theoretical stuff, frankly you could perhaps drop half and give them two thirds of the time in the field 🙂

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