This section considers the key roles played by our universities and explores some of the emerging issues that are facing the sector. So, let's start with a difficult question...

What is the purpose of higher education?

Over the 800 years of the modern university, there have been competing narratives about what the institution is designed to achieve. Each of these has a strong contemporary resonance, and universities today generally reflect a balance – whether explicit or implicit – between the various strands.

In summary, universities have been seen as:

  1. Communities dedicated to the learning and personal development of their members, especially students (this could be termed the 'liberal' theory);
  2. Sources of expertise and vocational identity (the 'professional formation' theory);
  3. Creators, testers, and sites for the evaluation and application of new knowledge (the 'research engine' theory, with an important corollary – the 'business and industry services' theory);
  4. Important contributors to society and nations (the 'civic and community engagement' theory).

For an overview of this history see Watson et al (2011), pp. 1–28.

What do you consider to be the main functions of a university?

Points you might have identified include:

  • The role of universities as repositories and generators of knowledge
  • The obligation to equip graduates so that they can obtain viable employment
  • The obligation to offer rational and timely criticism in areas of public policy and social and economic life
  • The presence of universities as large and influential bodies in civil society and the state
  • The longer term role of graduates in creating cohesive and tolerant communities.

In the following text version of the video, two Vice-Chancellors offer their views on the key functions and direction of higher education. They illustrate the complex perspectives that must somehow be melded across the sector.

Media - Video

What are the main functions of higher education?

Professor Eric Thomas, President, 'Universities UK', Vice-Chancellor, University of Bristol: The main functions of higher education and universities are predominantly two-fold. One is as educational establishments and the second as generators of knowledge and technology. As educational establishments, their function is to provide able, self-directed learners that are independent and confident, and will go out into society and give to society through leadership or through civic duties. As knowledge generators, they are research institutions there to provide new knowledge, to change paradigms, to aid society in its development and in meeting new challenges as they come along.

Professor Michael Arthur, Vice-Chancellor, University of Leeds: The main function of the university, really, is to make a significant contribution to civil society. Obviously, the education that we provide to our students, preparing them for their contribution to society is a key function. We create new knowledge. That is a key and important part of any research-led intensive university. The link between the two is particularly important to us here at the University of Leeds. We think they feed off each other, and of course, interpreting all of that into things that are of use, and that have an impact on society. Those, to me, would be the key functions of any university.

How can higher education best serve the interests of the national community?

Professor Eric Thomas: By supplying it with a substantial output of skilled, educated, independent, self-directed learners who are going to be confident leaders in society, in all of its areas. The second thing that higher education can do is provide new technologies and new knowledge that will help society deal with the issues that it's facing. And of course, in the local community, higher education is now hugely important as an economic, social and cultural powerhouse.

Professor Michael Arthur: Now, in 2011, we need to help drive forward the economy of the nation, and I think investment in us, in terms of funding for our teaching and also funding for our research, translates into highly skilled graduates that contribute to the economy and also to research that in turn leads on to innovation. One can point to several major discoveries that were disruptive and led to major economic developments from British research-intensive universities, and that's exactly where we see ourselves.

What changes would you make to higher education to increase its relevance to society?

Professor Eric Thomas: I think the most important change that we could make to higher education to increase its roles in society is to be increasingly sensitive to the needs of the students, and the skill sets that they will require to face the challenges that they're going to go out into in society. I mean, previously, our pedagogy was probably not as student-centred as it should be. Our students are now very aware of what's going to be needed from them in the future, and the skill sets that they're going to need, and I think we have to come along side them in our education, giving them those skill sets.

Professor Michael Arthur: The changes I'd make to higher education would have to include some very careful thinking about the funding structures, whether or not they provide the right incentives, and whether or not they provide adequate resource. That's a key set of issues. It's a set of issues that we've been heavily involved in discussion with our government about. I do absolutely feel that investment in higher education is an incredibly important thing to do, probably more important at a time of poor economic growth. So I think investment into teaching will help us produce those graduates that our economy needs. We're crying out, aren't we, for engineers and scientists, for example. Also, investment into the research base. I'm not very keen on changing structures. I don't think that necessarily helps. Universities are about the people that are in them, what they do, the conditions that they find creative, so creating conditions that promote creativity are the sort of things that I would emphasise as being crucially important.

Media ends

Consider again your response to the question above asking you to consider the main functions of a university. Having considered these video transcripts, would you now alter the answer you originally gave?

Organisational icon

It is important that you understand the roles your own institution aims to fulfil. Completing the 'Reflective activity' at the end of this section will help you consider how these views relate to your own situation. Your role will be strongly allied to those principles and will be informed by the intended outcomes the institution must achieve.