In the book ‘What Are Universities For?’ Stefan Collini cautions that it is difficult to come up with a definition that captures the complexity of the university as a single institution. His treatise briefly outlines the history of universities in the UK from the 19th to the 21st century but dwells, as might be expected, on current affairs with an emphasis on how different stakeholders, such as academics and the state, view the delivery of higher education and the ensuing tensions. He draws attention to, and encourages reflection on, what a university should be, both to its immediate society and beyond. Collini’s approach resonated very strongly for me because I am a postgraduate student who has traversed a little bit of the globe to partake in my ideal of a university. And, in my research, I aim to understand the perceptions of diverse individuals who increasingly cross boundaries – those which are geographical as well as more subtle ones based on attitudes and beliefs – to partake in this ‘What’ which is called a university.
On Monday 10 November 2014, at one of the oldest universities in the UK, Edinburgh, an event on ‘What is the university for?’ was hosted by the Chaplaincy Centre. Two members of staff at the University, Daphne Loads and Ken Fordyce, suggested I might be interested in attending the event. I was sufficiently captivated by the idea of giving some input to ‘Creating a university’ and promptly ordered my ticket. My commitment was amply rewarded.
University classes in the UK have opened up to me a world of diversity. There is no pre-warning of this in the admission letter you get but it is, nonetheless, a fascinating discovery. Diversity is everywhere and this was evident in the make-up of the people taking part in the Creating a university event. Here’s just one example. While preparing to attend the event, I asked my classmate if she would be happy for me to submit our photo (a selfie taken during a class break) for the event Facebook page. She acquiesced and I posted the entry. Appropriately, I captioned it Diversity, and you can find it here. I articulated my idea of a university as a space for diversity started even before attending the event.
Staff, students and the general public were invited to the event. It was great to see some familiar faces. Many more were unfamiliar. We were assigned to groups and the people I worked with were all new to me. We worked hard together and I’d like to build on that as I take my next steps through the University. I thought, much later, that perhaps my time with the group reflected the quintessential nature of university for a student, who navigates its revered terrains within a limited period, but for whom the experience lasts for a lifetime.
We spent part of the evening doing small group activities where we shared our perceptions of what a university means to us. This was done in a very amiable and respectful environment where our views were all considered. We all contributed our thoughts on what we would like to see in our ideal university. These ranged from inclusion, to breadth, empathy, listening, community, student experience, staff experience, public and flexibility. There was also mention of the ‘unbundling’ of ideas in a creative academic environment. It was not lost on me that we seemed to focus mostly on the softer element of the university such as communication and interpersonal engagement. The academic aspects seemed to be a given.
To end the evening session each group summarised and wrote down their viewpoints. My group eloquently expressed ours in an essay entitled ‘Breaking the Walls’. In it we voiced our hope that students and staff can work together in our ideal university to break down both real and imagined walls. This, then, paves the way to create an inclusive and mutually rewarding environment where capacity is nurtured to develop citizens whose actions will have an impact on their immediate environment and indeed the world!
Later, in a smaller group, we refrained from looking at what we would like to change and reflected instead on some of our cherished experiences at the University. These were the mostly unnoticed, but deeply affective acts, which in our opinion deserve more recognition. The tutors, who give more than their pay cheques dictate; the students who give peer support; the canteen staff who serve with delight and always ask about your studies; and the cleaners who encourage the PhD student they encounter studying through the night.
We did not come up with a one word description of what a university is for. But we all contributed our ideas – embedding our hopes, desires, and aspirations – in words. We also listened to one another, opening our minds to further understand each other’s ideal of a university. Despite our outward cloak of diversity, connecting with others on that Monday evening helped me to understand that I am in a university that listens – and I added my voice on the 10th of November 2014.
About the author
Omolabake Fakunle is a currently PhD Education student at The Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh. Her research explores student experiences within discourses on the internationalisation of Higher Education, and she has presented aspects of her research at national and international conferences. More information available is available here. You can follow her on twitter @LBKFK
Collini, S. (2012). What Are Universities For? London: Penguin.