14/07/2011 07:54 BST | Updated 13/09/2011 06:12 BST

The Real Threat to Universities

Higher education is in the process of being shaken up like an experimental new cocktail, mixed by an untrusted barman. David Willetts's white paper promises to introduce competition for the universities, with new providers like A.C. Grayling's New College for the Humanities seeking out new niches in the market for learning. As a result, there's been a lot of talk recently about what universities are actually for.

Like sex - which is for procreation, but not only for procreation - higher education does and always has served many different needs, such as economic utility, skills training, social mobility and pure learning. It's like a Swiss army knife, whose many blades are used and valued differently by every person who has one. Similarly, if you reduce the purpose of a university to any single function, you miss the point.

For instance, it is common enough to find students for whom a belief that a degree will improve their career prospects is a primary motivation, and it would be foolish to deny the part universities do and should play in enabling social and financial advancement. That doesn't mean we all have accept this as the main, overriding goal of higher education. Even if you think it's a minor function, like the corkscrew on a pocket knife, why remove or disparage it when so many get good use out of it?

Matters become more contentious when it comes to determining which are the main blades. The problem here is that people are too quick to assume that the functions they themselves most appreciate are the ones which define what universities are really for.

So, for instance, those working in the humanities must justify what they do by appeal to the lofty ideas of learning for learning's sake, with perhaps a nod to the value of a broad, humanistic education in producing well-rounded citizens. Hence they are hostile to any suggestion that universities serve utilitarian functions, like vocational training. But were, say, a philosopher to stroll across campus to the medical school, she would discover that the rationale for study there involves precisely the kind of talk of skills and utility which is anathema to humanities scholars. These faculties are there to produce medics and researchers. Their role is not primarily to push back the boundaries of knowledge for its own sake but to save lives and improve health.

So although we can give perfectly coherent answers to the questions 'what are medial faculties for?' and 'what are literature departments for?', the moment we try and bring both answers together to determine what the university as a whole is for, we get contradictory rationales. On the Swiss army knife model, this isn't a problem. The whole point of such an instrument is to fulfil a variety of functions.

Yet one question remains: why combine all these different functions in the one institution? Why have one multi-purpose tool rather than a variety of more specialised ones? The analogy here is useful again. The virtue of the Swiss army knife is that we have the need to draw on its different functions at different times, and we can't predict in advance when those times will be.

The university can be seen in a similar light, with the additional feature that, to put it metaphorically, what looks like a blade may turn out to be a bottle-opener after all. Take some of the surprising uses of philosophy. Computer scientists start to work on artificial intelligence and philosophers contribute to their understanding of what intelligence is and the ethical implications of artificial intelligence. Biologists work with human DNA and embryos, and bioethicists are required to help clear the moral ground. Educationalists realise that children need help to develop their critical thinking skills, so philosophers and psychologists are enlisted to help meet that need.

All of this is made much easier by the fact that philosophers, educationalists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, computer scientists and biologists are part of the same institution: the university. And this is no happy accident. It reflects a deeper philosophical truth that all human knowledge is interconnected. So there is, after all, one single function which universities can perform: provide a common home for the various but interrelated branches of human knowledge. It is right and proper that these various branches are kept interconnected because the various parts of the tree of knowledge are not discrete, and they are still growing.

And that is what is truly worrying about forthcoming reforms. More competition and specialised suppliers means a further fragmentation of the intellectual ecosystem. The damage to education we should fear is not a matter of money or competition as such, but the ways in which these tools end up being used as chainsaws to turn human understanding from an organic whole into dead, inert logs, fit only for burning.