Specialisation is back on the HE agenda, but not for the first time

This was originally published on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog.

By Tamson Pietsch

In June results were released of the pilot study for U-Multirank, the European Commission funded new universities benchmarking tool. Contending that existing rankings are too exclusively orientated towards research, it instead aims to make comparisons based on the stated interests and priorities of its users, thereby placing an explicit emphasis on diversification.

The authors of the University of Plymouth’s HEFCE funded Enterprising Universities Project have argued that the marketised nature of the sector means that institutions will need to differentiate themselves by focusing on what makes them distinctive. Those that offer popular courses will have to do so ‘vertically’ – via league table positions or differential fees – but universities that move into emerging territory can do so ‘horizontally’ – by offering courses or experiences not available elsewhere.

The release of the HE white paper last week was seen by some commentators to include incentives that will push post-92 universities down the path of boutique education.

This is not the first time ‘specialisation’ has been seen as the answer for troubled British universities.

First, the foundation of the English Civic universities at the turn of the century meant there had been a proliferation in the number of institutions providing university training – it would be a waste of resources for them all to provide the same training. Second, there had been a rapid expansion of the number of subjects taught and in their subdivisions – how could every institution keep up with this pace of change? And third, the new universities were small – if they insisted on teaching every subject, none would be taught effectively.

Instead, it was proposed that each university was to focus on subjects that built upon its ‘local advantages’: the natural, industrial or professional character of the region in which it was located, the expertise of its scholars, or the legacies bequeathed to it by time. Student choice was also emphasised: they would be attracted to work with the great teachers wherever they were resident.

However, in contrast to today, even those who advocated such specialisation drew some limits. There were some subjects that they held ought to be taught in every university worthy of the name. The arts and sciences, comprising on the one hand languages and literature, ancient and modern, history and philosophy; on the other, mathematics, and the main sciences, physics and chemistry – these were thought to constitute an irreducible minimum without which university life was impossible.

It was not that the men, such as Oxford’s T Herbert Warren, who advocated these ideas were too attached to outmoded models, indeed he deplored universities that were too often conventional, imitative and unoriginal. But rather that they were committed to a conception of the university that is absent from discussion today. ‘Half the value of the University’, maintained Warren, ‘lies in the association of studies, in the bringing together of both older and younger men occupied in, or preparing themselves for different intellectual pursuits.’

How this once-prized associative aspect of British universities as places of intellectual difference and diversity will factor in the new world of higher education yet remains to be seen.

Dr Tamson Pietsch is Sir Christopher Cox Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford. She also blogs about academics, universities and the history of the knowledge economy at Cap and Gown.

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