The Idea of a University – by John Hayes MP

In the ‘Idea of a University’, first published in 1894, Cardinal Newman wrote that ‘a general culture of mind’ is the ‘best aid to professional and scientific study

Newman argues that the man “who has learned to and reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision,

will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good landlord, or a man of business, or a soldier, or an engineer, or a chemist, or a geologist, or an antiquarian,

But he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to … with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger.”

Newman’s liberal view of education is widely shared.

It still helps to inform our idea of a University today.

But Newman was writing at a time when only a narrow elite attended University

A time when students had little reason to give to much thought to how their studies may advance their career

A time when many didn’t even have to graduate.

Today, over 40% of young people in Britain attend some form of higher education.

As the idea of going to University has spread more widely across society

So our idea of a University has changed.

And with expansion comes challenges.

The greatest challenge is to avoid, as was argued during an earlier period of University expansion that ‘more’ will mean ‘less’

Today Universities face the spectre of budget cuts and pressure from the Government to change their admissions in favour of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If we are not careful these pressures could result in declining standards and a diluted brand.

If we are to avoid this we need to think again about the idea of a University

To be clear about the purpose of Higher Education

Cardinal Newman argued that anything worth studying is worth studying at University.

I share this view.

But I do not believe that, to be of value, higher learning has to be general and transferable

The liberal view of education

I believe there are other forms of learning of equal value.

Much that is taught and tested in higher education is specific and vocational.

The majority of University courses already lead to qualifications necessary to enter a profession

Be it medicine, law or accountancy

University qualifications are a licence to practice.

I believe that as higher education grows so will the occupations that rely on it to provide their training

What distinguishes higher education is not what is taught

Or who is taught,

Or, even how, when and why they are taught.

What distinguishes higher education is the level at which they are taught.

Be it history, engineering or even software design.

Higher education is about high level skills.

It is about excellence in all its forms

In teaching as well as research

By embracing this idea of a University

We can see how the various challenges facing the sector can be addressed.

In terms of both funding and admission.

We can protect quality and enable more to benefit from higher education.


Let me turn first to funding.

British Universities have a long and noble tradition of excellence in research.

The UK is home to a disproportionate share of the world’s leading research universities.

With one per cent of the world’s population the UK achieved 12 per cent of all scientific citations last year.

But other forms of excellence matter as well

Excellence in business engagement

Excellence in teaching

In recent years funding has become too prescriptive

Universities have become focused on centrally determined objectives as the Government steadily increases the proportion of funding from special funds or initiatives.

There are currently 36 earmarked pots of funding outside of the block grants.

This funding totals over £1.2 billion a year.

The impact of earmarked funding has been to undermine diversity.

 Institutions are compelled to bid for money from these different streams in order to protect their finances.

Many of the earmarked funds are designed to ensure the Government can control the policy and practice of UK universities and micro-manage their priorities.

As a result institutions are forced to pursue similar missions regardless of their strengths and traditions.[1]

Many new Universities, as polytechnics, developed strong links to local industry over many decades.

They pioneered sandwich and part-time day release courses where students can combine study with work.

But the expectation that Universities should all be alike has often undermined these links.

Sandwich courses have declined (CBI research)

Government mandates have formalised University contact with business.

Nearly all Universities have state funded Technology Transfer Officers

The result is that collaboration has become less easy.

The Government’s new Research Excellence Framework (REF) means that from 2010 a quarter of research funding will be based upon the ‘contribution to demonstrable economic and social impacts’ of the research submitted

The changes will mean ever more bureaucracy as academics spend more of their time seeking to demonstrate the value of their research.

Time they could have spent engaged in original work.

We must more away from this model.

I believe that the role of Government is to recognise excellence

Not to prescribe it.

If all Universities continue to chase the same pots of money

If they endeavour to be alike

Then the regrettable result will be declining standards.

No one institution can do everything

It is through specialisation

Individual and diverse missions

That we can maintain and extend excellence


John Ruskin wrote:

Education is the leading of human souls to what is best, and making what is best out of them.

I believe that it is the role of Government to enable people to do their best

And to be the best they can be.

But uncomfortable truth is that we have not done enough to expand access to higher education and the professions.

Opportunity for some has not led to opportunity for all.

In 2005 the Sutton Trust found that people born in 1970 are less likely to have moved between social classes than those born in 1958.

In the space of just twelve years, a child born into poverty would be less – not more – likely to escape the circumstances of their birth.

Behind this change has been a rise in educational inequality.

Young people from the poorest income groups increased their graduation rate by just 3 percentage points between 1981 and the late 1990s,

That compares with a rise of 26 percent for those from the richest 20 percent of families.

The clear conclusion reached by the authors of the Sutton Trust report is that ‘the expansion of higher education in the UK has benefited those from richer backgrounds far more than poorer young people.

It’s still more dispiriting that despite a raft of Government measures and a deluge of spin a recent Cabinet Office report was forced to conclude that ‘broadly, social mobility is no greater or less since 1970[2]

And the latest HESA statistics show that the number of undergraduates from lower-social economic groups, is actually falling.

The Government believes that the problem is that too few young people aspire to attend University

It has spending £2 billion a year on measures intended to widen participation, largely through the Aim Higher programme.

But Research suggests AimHigher has not been as effective in targeting pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds as had been hoped.

A revealing Government study which found “No conclusive statistical evidence that such interventions have then led to increased aspirations to enter higher education.”[3]

In fact, Ministers have been forced to admit, in response to parliamentary questions that ‘it is not possible… to identify young people entering university who previously participated in Aimhigher activities.[4]

One reason why AimHigher has had little impact is because aspiration is not the core problem.

Surveys show that, three-quarters of young people from all social groups aspire to go to university,

And aspiration is rising fastest amongst young people from the lowest income groups.

Another recent study has shown that 91% of parents and grandparents want their children to go to university.[5]

A detailed study of participation in higher education in Nottingham North has found that it was not aspiration, but rather a lack of knowledge about how to turn aspiration into reality that is the real issue.

Often young people do not get the strategic advice and guidance they need to progress from school and college to university and a career.[6]

It’s clear that if aspirations had become admissions the Government would have already met its targets.

It is only when we examine why the aspirations of less well off families are routinely frustrated that we can make things better.

Where-with-all as well as opportunity

According to a recent report ‘the UK is not doing enough to provide a more or less complete online educational experience to students who, for a variety of reasons cannot enjoy a conventional campus based learning experience.’

I believe that institutions must be given the flexibility they need to deliver greater opportunity in practice.

As a nation we cannot afford to fall behind other countries in the provision of e-learning and other forms of distance learning.

All institutions could and should learn from the Open University which has led the way in developing innovative ways to study online

And they should learn from the best practice of collaboration between higher education and further education.

But, opportunity is not enough.

We have to help people make the choices that allow them to access opportunity in the first place.

 Where-with-all is just as important as opportunity.

Too often people, especially the young do not get the advice and guidance they need to turn their ambitions into reality.

In two –thirds of schools in England careers advice is given by staff without any formal qualifications in the field.

A recent study found that 31% of young people feel that they are not getting enough information about going to university.[7]

And a survey published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission provides yet further damning evidence that careers advice reinforces socio-economic divisions and inhibits social mobility.

It found that One in five young people hadn’t received one on one career advice and did not have an understanding of how to achieve their desired career path.

And that an incredible 94 per cent of young people said they needed better subject and career information and support. 

That’s why we so desperately need a dedicated and impartial all-age advice and guidance service.

With a presence in every secondary school and college

Everyone should have access to universally recognised, community-based impartial advice and guidance about education and career options.


I believe that education is they key to unlocking individual potential,

Enabling all to play a part in building a socially mobile, just and cohesive society.

As a country Britain led the world into the industrial revolution

And we led the world in the growth of the service sector.

I believe that Britain can lead the world into the new economy of the 21st century – an economy that will require people with high level skills

And people with the aptitude and the ability to adapt quickly to new roles and new challenges

We need an education system that is flexible enough to respond to these new demands.

Instead of becoming ever more prescriptive;

Instructing and dictating

We should trust the expertise of those with a sound track record – to deliver

We must look and learn from the best and evangelise to the rest.

Instead of telling potential students that they must study in a particular way, at a particular time, in a particular place,

We should be opening-up provision and valuing different forms of life-long learning.

And instead of trying to make every University alike

We should recognise and celebrate quality in all its forms.

The idea of a University

As the idea of excellence in education.

The Great Poet W.B Yeats wrote that ‘Education is not the filling of the pail but the lighting of a fire

Different fires burn in different people

The fire of learning can take many forms and burn in different directions

We must foster these burning passions

A passion for higher learning.

[1] Dr Roger Brown: ‘New Labour and Higher Education: Diversity or Hierarchy?’, Professorial Lecture, 26/3/2002, University of East London.

[2] Cabinet Office, ‘Getting on, getting ahead’, November 2008

[3] Evaluation of Aimhigher: Excellence Challenge Interim Report 2005

[4] Hansard, 20/4/09,Col. 7W

[5] Press Release, DIUS, 3/1/08

[6] Gates et al., ‘Young participation in higher education in the Parliamentary Constituency of Nottingham North,’, Centre for Research in Equity and Diversity in Education (CREDE), University of Nottingham, 2007

[7] Sutton Trust News Release, 28/4/2008


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