Recently there was a desultory and defensive response to our editorial “Higher Education at UG?” in which we had bemoaned the dearth of research in our sole tertiary institution. We questioned whether those agitating for change had given much thought to the ‘raison d’etre’ for higher education which we proposed was ‘the creation of knowledge’.
Even more disappointing was the action of some who claimed to be concerned about the university yet focused totally on the issue of control. Control to do what?
The phrase ‘idea of the university’ goes back to a seminal period in modern university history, the reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt in Prussia. Starting with the University of Berlin, founded in 1810, the ‘Humboldtian’ university became a model for the rest of Europe, and by 1914 German universities were generally admired as the best in the world. It was the Humboldtian model that shaped the research universities of the United States, which head the international league today.
The central Humboldtian principle was the ‘union of teaching and research’ in the work of the individual scholar or scientist. The function of the university was to advance knowledge by original and critical investigation, not just to transmit the legacy of the past or to teach skills.
Teaching should be based on the disinterested search for truth, and students should participate, at however humble a level, in this search. Hence the classic view that the university was a community of scholars and students’ engaged on a common task. Humboldt’s influence is still felt in the assertion that research must be an integral part of every university’s activities.
But in the Humboltdian vision, research was still seen as ancillary to teaching. It was in the 20th century that research came to be seen as a vital activity in itself, indeed as the primordial purpose of universities, contributing to industrial progress, military strength, and social welfare, and requiring collaborative rather than individual effort. The union of teaching and research reflected the social mission of the elite university. It was based on the assumption that the subjects taught in universities had a corpus of theory and knowledge which needed to be kept up to date by current research.
In 1963, when the University of Guyana was launched with the assistance of academics primarily from the UK, a seminal reassessment of higher education in the UK was also released.
The early founders of UG were obviously influenced by the report of the Robbins committee, which proclaimed the ‘Robbins principle’, that university places should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment. The report also discussed the nature of higher education, and defined four ‘objectives essential to any properly balanced system’.
The first objective, a utilitarian one, was ‘instruction in skills’; but universities must also promote the ‘general powers of the mind’, to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’.
Thirdly, while the balance between teaching and research might vary, teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth, since ‘the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes of the nature of discovery’ through research. Last came ‘the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. The present UG would fail on all four goals.
Now all of this is not to say that a university should not be autonomous – but it should deliver of its goals. The Humboldtian ideals were reaffirmed in the Bologna declaration of 1988, signed by the heads of most European universities, and described as ‘the Magna Carta of the European universities’. The first Bologna principle was that the university is an autonomous institution, with the distinctive mission of embodying and transmitting the culture of its society. Second came the principle that teaching and research must be inseparable, and third that ‘freedom in research and training is the fundamental principle of university life’. Finally, the charter declared universities must transmit a common culture – in their case European humanism.
What are our university’s ideals?