Universities are stuck in a rut – entrepreneurial spirit could get them out

Weighed down by history. Old books via Mediagram/www.shutterstock.com

Universities are deadly conservative. We don’t want to be. We say we’re not. But we are. Our traditionalism shows through in the way we provide an undergraduate education which has remained largely unchanged over the past 50 years. We still organise most undergraduate courses so that the possessor of a good first-class degree is capable of proceeding to doctoral research in that subject without any further ado. So the most clearly identifiable outcome of our teaching is the production of individuals who can replace ourselves.

In 1965, this may have made sense; but today in my department at UCL there are 14 times more students than there were 50 years ago. Overall student numbers have grown rapidly since the 1980s, and yet the pedagogical model has barely shifted. It must. In the face of this, some could argue that universities have inadvertently become rent seekers, sitting like a medieval sovereign on the mint of modern credentials.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we are only interested in our most academic students. Academics are aware of our duty to form the minds of all those who come to study, to help them turn themselves into useful, constructive, critical citizens. But we could be much more ambitious about how we can do that today.

Don’t hide away from the world

We are not nearly as socially inclusive as we want to be. We say the right things but need to do more. Many academics worry that our intake is socially and ethnically narrow and would like to alter this. But perhaps we have not properly considered how far the way we teach and what we teach might affect our attractiveness to people whose parents did not go through the university system.

Universities arose, in the late middle ages, out of and within the monastic model of withdrawal from the world: study, prayer and contemplation. They have never entirely broken free from these roots. The notion of closing ourselves off to the world in order to gain distance from its follies and to find the space to think remains a powerful mindset within academia. But it has had the unintended consequence of excluding many who are not like us but might today like to come in.

Our research environment aspires to openness, but too often we speak to and work with the usual suspects. We tend to think that research is something that only universities do. We all need to get beyond the idea that the way people think and solve problems in the outside world is inherently less interesting, less innovative or disruptive.

Not only have we valued our research over teaching, but we allow only a one-way flow between the two – research informs teaching and not vice versa. The fight for the right to teach what we want – academic freedom – has been long won, but the fight for the right of students to learn what they want, that’s hardly begun.

Why don’t we let students plan their own learning paths, putting them and their abilities at the centre of our courses. The idea that we are transferring our expertise is only one part of the story. There is expertise out there, including in our students – who are in many ways more aware of what is needed to get control of this rapidly changing world than we are. We just have to help them find this in themselves and in the world around us.

Get rid of fixed academic terms

One of the saddest aspects of the modern university is the way its organisation excludes a) all but the wealthiest mature students and b) those who would like to do one course as a taster or as a part of their continuing professional development. Some innovative US universities – such as Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts – teach in blocks of non-stop engagement. Apart from the other enormous advantages of such immersive, protected-time teaching models, they are also ideally suited to part-time or single-course-only students, giving them full, if temporary, access to the university learning experience.

Such a change could prove transformative. Universities could drop the archaic idea of fixed terms and holidays and the June graduation for all. Think of the nature of a teaching environment with all the generations of our country present. People could come in to take our new courses for their own sake, for their “intrinsic” worth.

Graduation shouldn’t be just for the young in springtime. Beardy Git/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

My own university, UCL is setting out on a great new venture with the creation of a new campus – UCL East on the Olympic Park. It can use this opportunity to develop a teaching and research strategy that will provide a viable model to bolster, broaden and broadcast our core mission: a diverse intellectual community that is engaged with and changing the world for the better.

Rooted in enterprise

Part of the solution is to build what I and others call a “porous university”. For me, enterprise lies at the heart of the change that is needed over the next two or three decades as we recreate our university. Enterprise has a pretty foul name in much of academia. People come to work in academia often having explicitly turned their back on the idea of entering commercial society.

But beyond our emotional affinities, there is something deeper – and perhaps more problematic. The novelist Alex Preston has written that:

Everywhere, and at all times, the onus is on academics to ‘monetise’ their activities, to establish financial values for their ‘outputs’ and to justify their existence according to the remorseless and nightmarish logic of the markets.

Cambridge intellectual historian Stefan Collini’s fluently composed book What are Universities For? argues that there is a profound opposition between the kind of goal-oriented “training” or problem-solving associated with professional degrees and true “intellectual enquiry” in a university – where the agenda is by definition “ungovernable”.

The truth is that all of us in research share the goal of open-ended and boundless research; the question is how we can achieve this in Britain today. Collini and other polemicists are understandably enraged by what appears to be the imposition of external values upon their own work. But they then throw the baby out with the bathwater. The current push towards demonstration of the “impact” of research should not be just – and not even mainly – about economics.

Enterprise is, always has been, and always will be central to our activity. By enterprise, I mean making or doing things that people want or need. It is the power of human beings to observe, reason and create: to make things happen. It’s also what academics do. Yet in the sense in which I take the term, enterprise provides a far surer guarantee today of the limitless enquiry that we all agree lies at the heart of intellectual activity than a retreat into the defence of disciplinary and academic purity.

My proposals to restructure the working year for universities are not just entrepreneurial speculation. UCL philosopher Nicholas Maxwell has run a life-long campaign to build a university that does not just teach knowledge but also the wisdom to use that knowledge. Many of the scientific advances in the past 150 years have come out of engagement with “working worlds” outside the laboratory, from Röngten’s discovery of X-rays to the emergence of cybernetics out of anti-aircraft radar research. The sooner we bring the world of practice and world of experiment together the better the chance for the future of humanity.