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This is quite a short book, with a focus that's probably obvious from the title - given the vast range of institutions, courses, disciplines, academics and activities - what does the word 'university' even mean? He doesn't really come to an answer, but he does frame the debate in some interesting ways.

The first half of the book, unfortunately, is pretty heavy on naval-gazing and pomposity. It seems like a self-conscious attempt to mirror the polemics and poeticism of writers such as John Newman, noting himself as he does that a list of bullet points is rarely sufficient to stir the passions. There's no denying he is an eloquent and insightful writer, but so much of that gets lost in the way in which he wraps his arguments up into flabby, flowery phrases.

But, about half way through the prose starts to tighten up considerably, and he becomes much looser - the second section of the book is a reprint of several short monographs he'd written previously, so the tonal shift isn't entirely unsurprising. But in these he's far more economical with language, and much better at dissecting the issues and even being genuinely funny. The last section raises a three star book to four stars, and it's a shame that the beginning wasn't similarly sharp.

I have something of a vested interest in the answer to this question - I saw first hand some of his remarkably prescient predictions of the implications of Dearing and Browne. Replacing the subsidised public good of English higher education with a market economy was a dreadful blunder, eroding relationships between staff and students and creating a fraught, tense environment shaped largely by the naive expectations of 18 year old school leavers as to future economic value of courses. That was one of the major reasons why I returned to Scotland, where the HE sector is not yet so infested with marketisation. But fundamentally, the question remains - what is a university? And why do we feel the need to defend the good a university does in narrow, economic terms? Why do we feel the need to justify it in terms of 'international competitiveness' or 'impact on GDP'? We come across as defensive and ultimately unconvincing when we do that. Much better to harken back to the words of US president John Adams, who said 'the whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expense of it'. Access to Higher Education isn't for everyone (and I would be very much in favour of parallel and socially equivalent opportunities for those that don't yearn for an academic qualification), and in attempting to make it so we end up diluting the key features that make it so valuable. I've often said that the mark of education (formal or self-taught) is the ability to hold an intelligent conversation on any given topic, and while you don't get that from university you do I think, by and large, as a general trend, end up put on the right *path* to develop that ability. For me, that's always been what universities are for - they're for raising the level of public discourse. That's kind of the answer the book comes to in the end, so I didn't come away from it with my preconceptions challenged, but I did come away with my perceptions broadened.

I'm sure this mini-review comes across as pompous as I said the book was. But I'm an unabashed elitist, so it's sometimes hard to hide that in day to day discourse.
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on 20 March 2012
Collini's book is not a serious attempt to answer the question he poses. It is more an assertion of the value of the University as a public good, and an invitation to join the cause (though a paragraph on p 56 comes very close). His task is made more problematic by the fact that universities are a heterogeneous bunch that lack internal consistency as individual institutions, let alone as a sector, and that we live in a moment that thinks all public policy is about economic growth at the exclusion of everything else. He is strong on disposing of some of the more traditional defences of university privilege, despatching Newman and his ilk, and contextualising the argument about instrumentalism that currently rages across the piece, demonstrating less of an affinity with the past and more concern about the future of higher education once purged of its uselessness. For Collini, the idea of leaving the fate of the sector in the hands of the nation's 18 year-olds is anathema. Working in an HEI, I can't help but agree with him: it is an abrogation of responsibility to the emerging generation by politicians and civil servants who are always looking to shift responsibility from their own shoulders.

His problem is the same as everyone else who has tried to deal with these issues: whilst his argument for support remains one that is generalised and abstracted, the flat-footed, practical types that dictate policy (and he cruelly exposes their intellectual limitations in the analyses of their White Papers and so on) point gruffly at the absence of utility to the failed economy and ask why universities should be indulged. His intellectual sneering is funny, but also indicates the extent to which the bureaucrats of varying sorts cannot formulate another argument, or respond effectively to ones like Collini's. We are gazing across a gulf of mutual incomprehensibility. Collini's case centres around the role of the Humanities, in a manner reminiscent of Carey's defence of literature in another polemical book (What Good are the Arts?). Yet, despite agreeing with much of his analysis, and greatly amused by much of his writing, it is hard to believe universities are the great Corinthian institutions Collini claims them to be. Between chronically wasteful and talentless management, droves of second-rate, monster-fee-paying international students whose pass marks are financially underwritten, recalcitrant colleagues who refuse to change 'on principle', and ludicrous quality assurance regimes, one could almost embrace the Browne Review as the beginning of the end. This is not solely the fault of Browne (though surely his 'reforms' will be disastrous), but of our own lack of care at what are universities have become through the inability of the sector itself (especially its leaders) to properly articulate its value in the public domain.
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on 19 November 2012
This beautifully written, subtly argued and passionate book is an intense pleasure to read, and needs to be widely read.

It's starting point is that the terms of public debate have become so degraded that we have lost any real understanding of what universities are really about and for, and why they matter. This book is an attempt to restore that understanding.

The first half consists of a potted history of the evolution of universities and an exposition of what they are, what goes on in them and why they matter. Collini cautions against nostalgia for some golden period, sketching successive changes that have transformed universities, the way they are funded and their perceived role in society. He argues against a false duality between 'arts' or 'humanities' and 'science', and tries to suggest how both have in common the notion of academic inquiry as an open ended but disciplined (and shared) pursuit. He argues that university education is a good in its own right, both for the students and for society, not as an instrument towards employment or citizenship or whatever. It is a measure of this book that he manages in passing to connect this to an essentially humanist idea of what life itself is about, and for.

The second half consists of series of reprinted essays attacking various policies introduced over the past 25 years - the obsession with measuring 'impact', the false dichotomy between 'research' and 'teaching' as a complete taxonomy of academic activity, the invasion of business-speak and the catastrophic mistake of 'marketisation' of higher education. It should shame anyone on the Left that this ghastly chronicle of destruction has progressed with no perceptible difference between Labour and Tory Governments (predictably, Blunkett's intervention proving especially and gratuitously harmful).

I'd have to think long and hard for an example of public policy described with such clarity and yet such subtlety. Collini's chapter on Newman's 'The idea of a university', lovingly describing this towering edifice while quietly demonstrating that it has no foundations, is worth the cover price alone. His description of what universities actually do - the wrong-headiness of breaking it down into exclusive categories like 'research' and 'teaching', the (as he puts it) 'illimitable' nature of academic inquiry, the inherently cooperative nature of academic work that makes 'competition' as particularly doltish way of trying to run it - are profound and necessary insights. A particularly powerful device he uses is to accept the principles and aims of current policy as given, and then demonstrate how they must inevitably defeat themselves.

I doubt many books on education policy make one laugh out loud, as I often did with this one. For one of Collini's strengths is to control and channel the passion, indeed deep anger, that he so clearly feels, and one way he does so is through satire. His deception of 'that strange animal, the tax payer', or of how Socrates would undoubtedly have failed an Athenian Research Assessment Exercise, are among many such passages.

A sign of the power of this book is that Collini's arguments continue to detonate like time bombs in one's mind long after one has finished it. So often, books on public policy leave one thinking, OK, I agree with points A, B and C, not with D or E, job done . This is different: one has not only learned to think in a different way about the subject, but is provoked to go on thinking about it for oneself. The book wonderfully illustrating its own thesis.

Another sign is that it has resonances way beyond the immediate subject. As a civil servant whose career was made on the Thatcherite New Managerialism, including performance measurement, competition and the like in another sector, I was brought to reflect on whether the new (and to my mind - here I differ from Collini - immensely necessary) understanding which that created may not also have done violence to other values, other ways of looking at and describing public services, indeed public life.

The book is open to the criticism (which Collini to his credit himself articulates): OK, you've had your fun, so what do you propose? And there is no answer here. Indeed, while Collini cautions against mere reaction, it is pretty implicit from the analysis that what we really need to do his row back to c 1980 - and spend a lot more public money - even though he acknowledges that that is never going to happen.

But his purpose is not to set out yet another blue print for reform, but to enable discussion of the future of universities to take place on the basis of a much richer and more accurate understanding of what they do and why it is worth it than the current obsession with employment and financial gain, or with fees and equality of access. In this he succeeds quite brilliantly, and we should all be grateful to him for it.
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on 16 May 2012
This book is vital fodder for parents of university students, the students themselves or anyone interested in the question - how much should universities be funded by the taxpayer? So that's pretty much all of us! Irrespective of whether you agree with the author's conclusions he directs us to the problems and, crucially, demonstrates the core skill I think universities are for, namely the ability to analyse issues, construct powerful arguments and to evaluate issues critically. The underlying problem is that there is no simple answer to the question of what universities are for, nor how (much) to fund them. The author's writing is clever and extremely witty at the same time. He occasionally writes sentences that require more concentration than others, but that strikes me as a good thing!

Reading this book prompted me to read The Trouble with Higher Education: A Critical Examination of our Universities. This (previously written) book looks drier on the face of it, but is an interesting perspective alongside that of Collini. Whilst it goes deeper into issues that may be more of interest to those in academia, it still raises questions I think students would find useful in order to understand the perspective of universities and the consequences of certain choices such as modular based degree courses. Again it demonstrates the skill of analysis and critique. I recommend the Hussey & Smith book as well.
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on 22 May 2012
Collini is saying essentially that the purpose of universities is all the things that they may reasonably choose to undertake. Underlying this are: that the life of the mind is a key element in humanity; that, even when usefulness to society may weigh in consideration of what should most receive support and funding, prediction of effectiveness is very hard; that universities are generally staffed by(highly) intelligent and conscientious people who will reach good decisions. The backgound to his efort in this book is what many see as increasingly instrumentalist approaches by governments determined to push university endeavour towards the potentially economically useful: in pursuit of which aim they insist on the application of mechanistic measurement, which is often misleading and always effort-consuming. While Collini is concerned particularly with work in the humanities, the argument runs wider.
We are in deep waters here: communication between author and lay reader is not easily achieved. And many will continue determined not to listen let alone engage in argument. But Collini does well by any anyone willing to give time and attention to working thru what he carefully expounds and discusses.
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on 10 December 2012
Across the world, universities are more numerous than they have ever been, yet at the same time there is unprecedented confusion about their purpose and skepticism about their value. What Are Universities For? offers a spirited and compelling argument for completely rethinking the way we see our universities, and why we need them.

Stefan Collini challenges the common claim that universities need to show that they help to make money in order to justify getting more money. Instead, he argues that we must reflect on the different types of institution and the distinctive roles they play. In particular we must recognize that attempting to extend human understanding, which is at the heart of disciplined intellectual enquiry, can never be wholly harnessed to immediate social purposes - particularly in the case of the humanities, which both attract and puzzle many people and are therefore the most difficult subjects to justify.

At a time when the future of higher education lies in the balance, What Are Universities For? offers all of us a better, deeper and more enlightened understanding of why universities matter, to everyone.
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VINE VOICEon 6 March 2014
Often people skip the introduction to books especially if it has latin numerals as this usually means that it does not form a part of the main text of the book and possibly it would have been better if I had. The problem is that the author shows his bias and his excess protectionism of the humanities against the charge of being useless compared to useful. So he disparages the sciences in the introduction and as a scientist this already put me in a position of wanting to reject his arguments.

The first half of the book is very academic and dry. Some of the arguments especially those looking specifically at the humanities I found very frustrating, arrogant or impenetrable. He says that a lay person should not be able to understand a paper in the humanities just as they cannot understand modern science. I am an editor of a science journal and I believe strongly in making science accessible and cutting through the arcane language. If the work cannot be understood by non-experts then there is no chance of inter-disciplinary cross-fertilisation and this is bad for all academics. So on that point we fundamentally disagree. As for usefulness PPE seems to have provided half of the current cabinet and I do not think there are many science graduates in government.

Where the author comes into his own is the second part which is a series of previously published articles that were responses to changes in government policy. As these are written for a less academic audience they are much easier to read and also much more convincing. His attacks on bibliometrics and the assurance of quality in both research and teaching are brilliant and witty. I especially like the section talking about the cutting of all funding of humanities imagining that the opposite had happened and that it had actually happened to sciences. As he points out scientists (except for the greedy, political, grant hoarding ones) also feel the need to support colleagues in the humanities and see a common goal of universities. So I feel he did not need to take the excessively defensive and anti-science position that sometimes appears in the first part. So I think there is enough in the second part to swing my opinion from 2-stars to 4-stars but if you skip the first half it would be a 5-star book.
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on 10 November 2016
The higher education sector in the UK is in the throes of fundamental change. Collini's book challenges us to re-examine the assumptions and 'taken-for-granteds' behind these reforms. The first part of the book provides a robust defence of the humanities and provides an interesting review of the earlier work by John Henry Newman on the 'idea of a University'. He reminds us of the notion of higher education as a public good, and that as such there is an argument for public funding. In the second part of the book, he traces some of the key reforms of the last 25 years and provides a scathing critique, including working through some of the unintended consequences of the reforms, or perhaps a better description would be accidental consequences!

What I enjoyed about this book was that it challenged me to think more deeply about the purpose of the University. With the everyday pressures of the workplace, basic assumptions can go unchallenged and unquestioned.

Collini shows us that if we try to justify the purpose of the University purely in terms of instrumental outcomes such as economic growth or employability of graduates, we run the risk of missing the essence of why these institutions exist at all.

Here on p.91 he describes a broader vision ;

"...a society does not educate the next generation in order for them to contribute to its economy . It educates them in order that they should extend and deepen their understanding of themselves and the world, acquiring in the course of this form of growing up, kinds of knowledge and skill which will be useful in their eventual employment, but which will no more be the sum of their education than that employment will be the sum of their lives."

He points potential unintended consequences of some of these reforms, for example, in the underfunding and support of subject areas where there is a less obvious relationship between the research in a particular area and its impact on society and the employability of its graduates.

Collini is critical of a narrow skills based focus;

"... the difference that is made (in education) is not best described in terms of the acquisition of 'skills'; and, second that the justification for the activity is not to be looked for in how those supposed skills may be what a particular kind of employer is looking for." p. 143.

Later he criticises the Browne report which focused on employability;

"Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next." (from the Browne report).

on p.187 he says; "This report displays no interest in Universities as places of education; they are conceived of simply as engines of economic prosperity and as agencies for equipping future employees to earn higher salaries. "

Of course we must focus on helping our students to achieve their potential and their aspirations. There are problems frequently cited in the media and elsewhere that show that there is a gap between what employers want and the skills and capabilities that graduates possess, for example

"The CBI found that 48% of employers were dissatissfied with the business awareness of the graduates they hired." (Browne report, 2010).

"Only 51% of undergraduates feel equipped for the world of work." UK Engagement Survey, HEA, November 2016.

But Collini reminds us that there can be too narrow a focus on these matters, to the detriment perhaps of a higher purpose and vision.
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on 11 October 2016
Interesting book. I wish there were more books such as this regarding in the broadest of terms the following issues: 1-How should funds be allocated to the universities and within and individual university to the different departments. 2-The relationship between the Humanities and Science and how funds and other resources should be shared between the two. 3-How the "output" of the universities should be judged, rather than evaluated by a bean counter in the Ministry. Very good point here.
The problem with this book is that no answer to these questions is provided, as the author himself admits. Let's accept that universities, from the great professors to the younger lecturers should be evaluated or rather judged by a panel of other academics, rather than evaluated in a bureaucratic manner, etc.. But who is going to perform this evaluation, and how are funds going to be distributed?
Further then that, this book is just too long. Should and could have presented the same ideas in much less space, and with greater clarity. Language used by Dr.Collini is unnecessarily challenging at times. He should make better use of his university funds, that is, taxpayer money, by writing shorter books (just kidding).
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on 2 October 2013
This book was clear and concise and made the case well that universities are not only there for economic reasons but for cultural ones as well. I guess he was preaching to the converted in that sense as it is something I feel passionately about. Definitely worth a read if you are interested in the arguments around the purpose of higher education.
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