What is in a name? Does it pick out some ‘essence’ – an idea to which those institutions, for example, universities, claiming to be manifestations of that idea, need to conform? If so, then we need to spell out what that idea is. Much depends on it. Thus, a degree is a mark of achievement awarded by a ‘university’, and its value, therefore, depends on the awarding body justifying that title. Again, governments financially support institutions which go by the name of university. By what criteria are they judged to be so? We have seen recently in Britain the growth of institutions which, because they have the title of university, are entitled to receive loans for their students, mainly from abroad, but questions have been raised as to whether they should be entitled to be so called.
There are many different kinds of institutions which claim to be universities and to award degrees. But before we look at them, it may be worth trying to identify the idea or the ideal against which claims to be universities might be measured.
Perhaps we might start with John Henry Newman’s account in his much quoted book The Idea of the University, namely, ‘a place of teaching universal knowledge’. This is qualified by the claim that its objects are intellectual, not moral, and the ‘diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement’. By ‘universal knowledge’ is meant those different logical forms of knowledge (defined by their distinctive concepts, modes of enquiry, procedures for verifying the truth) by which we have come to understand the physical, social and moral worlds we inhabit. There is an inheritance of knowing, reasoning, appreciating which needs to be preserved and passed on to future generations. Such an institution (the university), therefore, would need to be broad in terms of the different disciplines of thinking which it offers.