Why our ‘second tier’ universities are responsible for social and economic change

Second tier universities should embrace the new university trajectory and avoid mimicking the traditions set by institutions such as Oxford. Shutterstock

The modern Western university has five major historical trajectories, four of which were dominant for more than 400 years. But the fifth, while spanning no more than 50 years, has been a crucial driver of an important historical and social change, especially in Australia.

The longest of the trajectories dates from the 11th century and was initially concerned with educating personnel for the Roman Catholic Church. It received a boost from the Christianising of Aristotle undertaken by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century: the main message of which was the need to strive for perfection in the image of a perfect God.

Not much of the perfect God component survives in today’s universities. But in the form of perfect reason, given to it by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, it survives in a big way.

The second trajectory is almost as old. It is more practical than it is intellectual, involving the education of children of those with landed wealth. In the 18th and 19th century it expanded to include the education of the children of those with moneyed wealth, something which made it suitable for the United States.

These first two trajectories between them have been and remain the inspiration for the supposedly “traditional” elite universities. Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale are all institutions that continue to serve as models for universities around the world.

The third trajectory dates from the late 15th and 16th century. It is concerned with the promotion of dissenting confessions of the Reformation and their need for committed Protestant personnel. Its close but difficult relations with capitalism, succinctly captured by Max Weber in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, has given it a life in the present day. It has of course dropped the more obvious characteristics of its Protestant heritage, though not all of them by any means.

The fourth trajectory relates to attempts to bring an end to the religion-based civil wars of the the 16th and 17th century. These wars lasted for nearly 150 years and wiped out large swathes of the population. Some 16th century thinkers attempted to use new forms of education to create new types of personnel. Justus Lipsius, for example, sought to train people in constancy, patience, and firmness, as set out in his influential book De Constantia.

The 17th century thinkers – especially Thomas Hobbes in England and Samuel Pufendorf and Christian Thomasius in Germany – had more success. They were aided in their efforts by the anonymous officials who crafted the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648.

When this treaty was able to establish a stable peace, important university reforms followed. Hobbes and Pufendorf were dead by this time, but Thomasius became a key figure in establishing the first of the new non-confessional universities, at Halle. Here he had particular influence in training lawyers in the virtues of constancy, patience, and firmness.

The new trajectory, then, was largely about producing a new type of person. This was a person who could work in an impersonal, non-sectarian manner, with a commitment to meritocracy and to an ethos of service. This was vital for the new form of rule that Westphalia ushered in: rule by the sovereign state.

In the intervening centuries the demands on the state have never slowed. It has had to learn how to govern more and more facets of life and how to effectively raise and spend the funds needed for the ever-growing list of governing projects.

Having cut its teeth on governing the armed forces, the state had to expand its reach dramatically in the nineteenth century when “the economy” emerged as a distinct domain in need of careful government. The state had to expand again in the 20th century when “the environment” emerged as a distinct entity in need of careful government.

This is not the stuff of dreaming spires, rather it is about advancing the “civil enlightenment.” Some universities were involved right from the start of this trajectory, though it has to be said that other “sui generis” institutions, like the Inns of Court in England, were initially more suited to the tasks at hand. But eventually many universities, especially the new ones, turned in this direction.

However, they mostly did so grudgingly. While some of them seemed keen on the project, many others were - and still are - averse to the state, or at least to the idea of the state. It is something of a paradox that many universities today want to lay claim to similarities between themselves and the traditional universities - those steeped in the earlier trajectories - yet they don’t say much, if anything, about this vital fourth trajectory.

Nonetheless, it is the ever-growing demands of the state, coupled with the exponential expansion of private economic activity, which led to the establishment of many more universities post World War Two. In many countries the growth of the number of universities and the number of students has continued into the 21st century.

While so-called ‘first tier’ universities may have the prestige, it is ‘second tier’ universities that have influenced greater levels of socioeconomic change in Australia. AAP/Luis Enrique Ascui

For me, this trajectory offers a noble ideal. It provides universities a means of respecting and supporting both the state and the private sector by increasing stability and prosperity and by helping to train personnel.

But I’m even keener on the fifth and final trajectory. To the best of my knowledge, it is very little remarked upon. This is the trajectory by which universities have begun to contribute substantially to the creation of wealth for those who once were always financially strapped. To put it another way, it encouraged the growth of the middle class.

As so few members of the working classes in modern Western countries had access to university before World War Two, its newness is hardly surprising.

In the boom years of the 1960s and 1970s, governments in many countries found both the will and the resources to the dramatically expand the number of people who wished to attend university.

I don’t know if anyone’s done it, but if they haven’t I’d like to see the development of what I call the “FIFAU index”: the First In Family to Attend University index. If this is at present only an anecdotal measure of the success of the new wave of universities, I’d like to see it systematised.

In Australia the FIFAU phenomenon is particularly significant. It’s now into its second generation. I know many baby-boomer FIFAUs: I’m one myself. Many of the children of these people have now also gone through university.

The benefits to the nation are two-fold. Two generations have been trained for service to the state and/or the private sector. More importantly, the wealth gained by these generations by the accumulations of previous generations has increased demand and fostered greater equality of opportunity.

Sure, there have been hurdles - most notably the global financial crisis - but it’s still a significant social and economic change which has been driven by universities, or at least by a certain class of universities.

This brings me to my final argument. The universities that have driven this change in Australia are not so much the established traditional universities, which tend to educate comparatively few FIFAU students. Rather, it’s the “second-tier” city and regional universities which have taken and continue to take the bulk of these students, while at the same time producing research of an international standard.

You would think that these universities would be trumpeting their achievements as loudly as they can, arguing for special FIFAU-related funding grants. But from what I can see they have done precious little of this.

Instead, they spend more time trying to compete in the ranking exercises dominated by the more traditional universities, which often has them trying to look as much like the traditional universities as they can. Is this is a mistake?