The Idea of the University: Philosophical or Economic?

by Dr Beena Giridharan

Universities have been recognised and accepted historically as places where scholars converge and hold meaningful discourse with peers and learners, and where new theories and new knowledge are engendered.

The idea of the university was first mooted by John Newman (1801-1890) who referred to universities as ‘a place of concourse’. Since its medieval origins, the idea of the university has morphed from metaphysical to scientific, from scientific to corporate, and from corporate to entrepreneurial ( Barnett, 2011).

The debate for ‘the idea of the university’ continues its fervency with academics espousing and repudiating definitions and the ‘idea’ remaining contentious, as can be expected. Gilbert (2003) proposed three ideas for the university: the idea of the university as a place where knowledge is valued for its own sake; a place where knowledge is pursued systematically; and the idea of the university as a civilizing institution, and a cultural bridge across generations.

This article re-examines the idea of the university and questions whether the idea for universities should be aligned to nuances of philosophical thought or to threads of economic significance. Or should they be fluid as envisioned by students, stakeholders and industry, and as matrix-driven as every other aspect of our lives?

Universities have in recent years become more than places that attract ‘wandering scholars’, and are in fact passionate about being magnets for professors and students on a global scale. With millions of students spending some time or other in their student lives at universities abroad, one can say that in present day, tertiary learners are increasingly mobile.

Today, universities can no longer afford to be labelled as ‘elitist’, or ‘remote’. Post secondary education occurs mostly at universities where knowledge is systematically constructed or reconstructed. However, should knowledge be the unique claim of higher education?

‘Work-integrated learning’ is the current buzz-word in higher education and universities globally acknowledge that graduate employability is of utmost significance when it comes to designing curricula and setting academic standards.

That is not to say that the idea has been passively accepted by those in the professorial echelon. In the Western world, where degrees in liberal arts are highly valued till present day due in part to the graduate attributes of critical thought, reflection and creative capacity reflected in the course, graduate employability is implicit.

However, it appears that there is rising academic tension between developing transferable skills in graduates, and the notion of building philosophical, literary knowledge and reflection, and critical and creative thoughts in students.

While one may reminisce or even yearn for the spaces at universities where one could easily refer to the works of Emerson and Thoreau and not be met with quick quips from students, if either of them had made it to the ‘Top Ten’, one must accept that there are huge academic and personal benefits, not to mention career benefits that stem from having professional generic skills embedded in the curriculum.

We must concede that today’s challenging economic scenario means that no longer can a new graduate only demonstrate knowledge of academic subjects, but that it is necessary for students to gain skills that enhance their employability prospects.

Curtin University, through its Curriculum 2010 project, a comprehensive and bold endeavour, has taken initiatives to ensure that its courses are current and relevant and reflect real-life contexts by reviewing all courses offered by the university and by embedding the triple-i curriculum.

The triple-i curriculum stands for: industry (graduate employability), indigenous, intercultural, international (global citizenship), and interdisciplinary (rich educational choices). Through these measures, the university believes that its graduates will be able to achieve all the Curtin Graduate Attributes.

The Curtin Graduate Attributes state the nine graduate capabilities of the Curtin graduate. At Curtin University, learning experiences and assessments throughout the course provide students with comprehensive and coordinated opportunities for work-integrated and career developing learning.

This may involve interacting with experienced speakers from industry in lectures, or working with researchers from research centres, or visiting sites significant to their subject areas to engage in experiential learning. Concomitantly, the capacity of students to apply discipline knowledge is not discounted.

Futures literacy is the capacity to tell anticipatory stories using rigorous imagining based on sharing depth of knowledge from across the community (Riel, 2011). Futures literacy skills include the ability to retrieve and use information, and to communicate and present information effectively.

Hence, learning tasks must advance planning and problem solving skills in students and enable social development and interaction skills.

The availability of the repository of information on the web alone will not educate the new generation of learners. They must develop the skills and capacity to use information wisely, to jettison the trivial and apply the real. The ontology and epistemology of knowledge is undergoing a repositioning.

However, the emergence of new knowledge and new ways of learning does not mean we have to replace one with the other. The ability to think critically and creatively and the ability to create new genres of literature and new ways of thinking will always win the world over. The idea of the university, be it economic or philosophical, therefore lies with the world of learners.

Dr. Beena Giridharan is the Dean of Curtin Sarawak’s School of Foundation and Continuing Studies and The Learning Centre. Dr. Beena Giridharan is a recipient of the 2006 Carrick Award for Australian University Teaching, and the 2006 Curtin Excellence in Teaching Award. She is a fellow of the Higher Education Research and Development Society Australasia (HERDSA) since 2006. She is the project member at Curtin Sarawak for an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) project entitled “Learning Without orders”. She can be contacted at +60 85 443939 or by e-mail to