Book Review:
On the Purpose of a University

Giles Pickford Homepage Link    Giles Pickfords Biographical Notes    Giles Pickfords Papers, Poems & Yarns

On the Purpose of a University Education by Luciano Boschiero (Ed.)
ISBN: 9781921875854 (paperback). Campion College and Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne 128pp

Review for Australian Universities Review by Giles Pickford

This book ought to be read by anyone who works in a University and who is wondering what it is all about.

By their nature universities can be very confusing places to work. A soldier is left in no doubt about the sole aim of his or her organisation. But universities seem to have as many aims as there are people who work in them. That is why university staff should steady themselves by reading Boschiero’s collection of essays, because they make sense out of a seemingly chaotic situation.

The dichotomy between a classical education and a utilitarian education, which still characterises tertiary education today, began a long time ago. John Henry Newman (1850s) espoused the classical view: ‘A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom. … This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching’.

In contrast Locke espoused a more vocational role where universities were charged with training the new professional classes. These included merchants, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, and people involved in agriculture, military tactics, engineering and technology.

In Australia, a vocational view of universities was emphasised by the John Dawkins reforms of the 1980s. The divide between education (universities) and training (colleges of advanced education / ex-teachers colleges) was broken when those colleges were designated as universities or merged with each other or existing universities in forming Australia’s unitary higher education system.

This marked the beginning of the current era in which universities are expected to be all things to all people. Because there was at this time (and for the foreseeable future) no extra money, something had to give. It is early days yet, but it appears that the classical humanities subjects are in a forced decline, including subjects such as Latin, Greek, philosophy, pure mathematics, history and literature.

There are still voices raised in protest at this decline. Recently, Michael Roth (2013), the President of Wesleyan University, Connecticut, USA noted that:

‘Totalitarian regimes embraced technological development, but they could not tolerate the free discussion that led to a critical appraisal of civic values. Here is the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, speaking to undergraduates just two years after Hitler had come to power in Germany: “To my mind, one of the most important aspects of a college education is that it provides a vigorous stimulus to independent thinking.... The desire to know more about the different sides of a question, a craving to understand something of the opinions of other peoples and other times mark the educated man. Education should not put the mind in a straitjacket of conventional formulas but should provide it with the nourishment on which it may unceasingly expand and grow. Think for yourselves! Absorb knowledge wherever possible and listen to the opinions of those more experienced than yourself, but don't let anyone do your thinking for you”. This was the 1930s version of liberal learning, and in it you can hear echoes of Thomas Jefferson's idea of autonomy and Ralph Waldo Emerson's thoughts on self-reliance.’

Boschiero’s book begins with the first essay by Constant J Mews on how it all began in 1125 with the Didascalicon: Hugh of St Victor’s book on how to study. This is ancient medieval history indeed.  Hugh’s advice is encapsulated below:

‘Eagerness to inquire means insistent application to one’s work; scrutiny means earnestness in considering things. Hard work and love make you carry out a task; concern and alertness make you well-advised. Through hard work you keep matters going; through love you bring them to perfection.’

I am sad that the word ‘Love’ is nowadays confined very much to sexual relations, which is a pity because it really applies to almost everything that matters.

The second essay on Integration is by Stephen McInerny and it discusses the need to understand the connectedness of things. For instance it is not possible to understand biology without having some understanding of physics and chemistry. He draws on the experience at Campion College which asserts ‘that there is interconnectedness between the disciplinary areas and that a synthesis can be attained by seeing the interconnectedness of ideas and perspectives in the different subjects.’

Geoffrey Sherington and Hanna Forsyth, authors of the third essay, take us back to the dichotomy mentioned earlier. It deals with the dichotomy between elite and the mass education. The dichotomy is illustrated in the subtle difference between the elite University of Sydney and the more pragmatic University of New South Wales: both top institutions in their own right, but with differing aims.  However these early differences are slowly disappearing as the relentless onward march of Locke’s utilitarianism continues.

The fourth essay by Arran Gare is ‘The Liberal Arts, the Radical Enlightenment and the War Against Democracy’.  It brings us right into the modern era with the ‘nightmare in store for all universities if they fail to resist the transformation of their institutions into transnational organisations, bureaucracies deploying top-down management controls such as ‘Business Process Engineering’, ‘Total Quality Management’ ‘Benchmarking’ and ‘Management by Objective’.

This is the longest essay and the most hard-hitting. It is full of dire warnings which demand the attention of academics and professional administrators from the vice-chancellor down. Training organisations such as the Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM) need to think long and hard about Gare’s warnings.  It is not sufficient for them to confine themselves to training because, as Gare says, it is now the top bureaucrats who run the university. The power of the professoriate has gone. The new managerial class needs to understand and uphold the 2,300 year old traditions of the university from Socrates to the present day.

The manager who thinks that the gross domestic product is the only thing that matters has completely missed the point of her existence.

The last essay by Gregory Melleuish is entitled ‘After the Fall: Standing in the Ruins of Liberal Education’. He examines the struggle that a liberal education, which focuses on the perfection of the human being, has when confronted by the commercial and bureaucratic juggernaut peopled by closed minds and technocratic thinking. He concludes ‘There is no justification for giving up. Even in the face of history we have no option but to continue doing what we love’. There is that word again.

Giles Pickford, for his sins, worked in various university administrations from 1964.  He is now retired.


Newman, H.H. (1850s). Idea of a university - Discourse V. 

Roth, M. (2013). Learning to Think for Ourselves. Huffington Post 14 November, 2013. Retrieved from

Giles Pickford | Website created by Michael Pickford