What is a University?

‘when medievals first spoke of university they were referring not so much to institutions as to people.’

‘Universities were a European invention and mediaeval one at that, reflecting the rapid increase in the number of scholars crowding into the urban schools during the second half of the twelfth century and the concomitant need for organisation and regulation. The new institutional forms, which first rose spontaneously in Salerno, Bologna, Paris and Oxford, were later to be introduced deliberately by popes, emperors and kings. We refer to them simply as “universities” but contemporaries called them “universities of masters and scholars.”

The difference is a revealing one. For us, the word “university” denotes simply the institution of advanced learning which has come everywhere in the world to dominate our systems of higher education. But when medievals first spoke of them they were referring not so much to institutions as to people. They were referring, that is, not to the great schools or studia generalia – where at least one of the advanced professional disciplines (medicine, law, theology) was taught and to which students resorted from all over Europe – but to the guilds (universitates) of masters and students, which, from the last quarter of the twelfth century onwards began to appear at those great schools. Not until the fifteenth century, in fact, did become common for the term universitas to be used as a synonym for the studium, school, or place of study.’

(Francis Oakley, The American College and the Liberal Arts Tradition, New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 17).


Rowan Williams’ 2006 lecture in China, ‘What is a University?’

‘You would learn how to read certain classic texts of your civilisation – to ask questions about the text so that you could understand it better and apply its content to understanding other settings and situations. You would learn about the rules of argument; but you would also learn how to speak in such a way that people would take you seriously – how to build up metaphors and appeals to the feelings, how to suggest indirectly what you did not want to say directly. If you had a certain temperament, you might want also to pursue all this beyond the basic and practical level, and reflect on how you could know the truth of the universe and the right way to live. Education in the western classical world was therefore, unsurprisingly, always subject to disagreement over what mattered more – finding out the truth or winning arguments and persuading people. It is the conflict – so it was often described – between rhetoric and philosophy, with philosophy in that context being understood not as an intellectual discipline alone but as a method of learning how to grow in virtue.

The university, then, sustains a culture of its own, a culture of conversation and mutual criticism and appreciation, in the context of which people may grow into a deeper understanding of what characterises human beings as such in their social interaction. That understanding has to do with seeing human beings as essentially engaged in learning – in enlarging their mental and imaginative worlds and approaching one another with curiosity, patience and welcome, being free to imagine how others ask different questions of the world around them. Within that common culture of a ‘learning humanity’, a university may as matter of historical fact have a visibly dominant cultural presence – perhaps religious, as often in Europe, perhaps deeply bound up with national identity and independence. But if it is to function as a university, this historical legacy will need to be, not neutralised or denied, but understood precisely as a legacy to be used as the soil on which debate can grow. Its tradition, religious, national, or whatever, is not an orthodoxy to be insisted upon (as was the case in English universities until the early nineteenth century) but as a secure space in which other voices are welcome and respected, and where the interaction of different voices and perspectives within the institution is not seen as any sort of contest for dominance. In many circumstances, an intellectual institution that is clear about its history and tradition can be a more rather than a less hospitable place because of this lack of any need to fight for a dominant voice.’ Read the lecture in full >


Rowan Williams 2012 inaugural address of the Annual CUAC lecture series.

‘University is not simply about seeking common answers. It’s about understanding the diversity of questions. Understanding, in the variety of enterprises and disciplines that go on in a university, just what it is for intelligence itself to be shaped by diversity, by conversation, and interaction.  Cross-disciplinary awareness and cross-disciplinary conversation become absolutely crucial to the life of a university in this sense. One of the saddest things that can happen in the world of higher education is when people lose sight of or lose touch with that sense of cross-disciplinary cross-fertilisation.’ Read the lecture in full >


John Henry Newman The Idea of a University? (1854)

‘I am asked what is the end of University Education, and of the Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge which I conceive it to impart: I answer, that what I have already [pg 103]said has been sufficient to show that it has a very tangible, real, and sufficient end, though the end cannot be divided from that knowledge itself. Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward. And if this is true of all knowledge, it is true also of that special Philosophy, which I have made to consist in a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches, of the relations of science to science, of their mutual bearings, and their respective values. What the worth of such an acquirement is, compared with other objects which we seek,—wealth or power or honour or the conveniences and comforts of life, I do not profess here to discuss; but I would maintain, and mean to show, that it is an object, in its own nature so really and undeniably good, as to be the compensation of a great deal of thought in the compassing, and a great deal of trouble in the attaining.’