‘What are Universities for? Interrogating the Assumptions of Current and Future Higher Education Policy in the UK’

The project I would like to pursue at CRASSH involves an analysis of the main contending ideas about the rationale for public investment in Higher Education that prevail in policy thinking within the UK.

The case for supporting Universities is typically linked to the expectation that they should pursue such goals as enhancing social mobility, increasing the nation’s economic competitiveness, promoting the UK’s image and reputation globally, and providing the requisite portfolio of skills for future generations of workers in the knowledge economy.

A growing academic literature explores many of the implications of these ideas for policy-makers and Universities, but much less attention has been devoted to their underlying normative foundations and ideological origin, and little serious public debate has occurred on the question of what Universities are for, as opposed to how they should be funded.

The research I propose would therefore be organised around two main questions:

1) What has been the role of politically rooted thinking and disagreement in generating new policy thinking about HE?

2) Is it the case that Universities in the UK are freighted with a mutually inconsistent bundle of policy ambitions; and how might these be rendered into a more coherent framework for future policy-making?

These will be pursued in two separate but related research foci:

1) An analysis of the provenance of some of these current ideas, with particular emphasis on a period of intense ideological disagreement about the rationale for Universities, their significance for the national culture, and their relationship with the state that developed from the 1960s to the 1980s (including assessments of the writings on this topic of such figures as Oakeshott, Hayek, Cowling, Beloff, Anderson and Galbraith). This would be supplemented by an analysis of the development in the 1990s of theories of the knowledge economy, and new thinking about the role of education in offsetting socio-economic disadvantage.

2) An examination of some of the normative conflicts and policy tensions that have arisen in relation to current ideas about the mission of publicly funded Universities, including: whether a clearer focus upon the pursuit of nationally designated social and economic goals pulls against some of the cosmopolitan ideals associated with the academy; whether older emphases on the role of Higher Education in shaping the national culture can be sustained alongside these other conceptions of the ‘mission’ of HE; and on whether current emphases on social mobility and economic competitiveness justify the encroachment by the state on the autonomy of Universities.

During my time at CRASSH, I would aim to focus predominantly on completing the first of these components (though I would also aim to compile materials and undertake interviews for the second) and would seek to engage with various scholars based at Cambridge who posses expertise in the study of intellectual history and political thought in the twentieth century. I would also use this time to prepare the ground for a public dissemination event which would address policy questions central to the Centre’s thematic focus upon ‘The Future University’.


Professor Michael Kenny (Politics, University of Sheffield) is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH, Michaelmas 2010.


Tel: +44 1223 766886