How far have we drifted from the Newman/Humboldt Idea of a university?


Irish universities have a plethora of missions. Many of these are laudable – the reduction of inequality, acting as a reservoir of skills for the modern economy, acting as engines of that selfsame modern economy, a sponge to soak up youth who might otherwise be unemployed… That they are laudable is not the point- they are distant from what has for centuries been seen as the core of universities. That core goes by various terms. In the European tradition it is called Humboltidian, in the Anglo-Saxon Newman. Both are essentially the same, and were the formalization of the centuries old approach as well as being the template of modern ones. The basic tenets of these are the same : a liberal education in its broadest sense, a focus on the person more than on the skills, universities containing the broad range of human knowledge, and a general sense of anti-utilitarianism. These are ideals which I would like to see actualised.

We have drifted far from these in Ireland, and fast. It is worth considering a systematic evaluation of the way we have moved, from the views of John Henry Newman and Alexander Humboldt towards what has been called the corporate university or academic capitalism.

We might note in passing that a critique of academic capitalism is not an attack on the free market but rather is one on a ham-fisted materialism. Due to information problems academia suffers from market failures and in keeping with standard economic logic, the co production of public and private goods, and significant externalities, a pure reliance on the free market typically does not guarantee the best outcome for society. We should also note that the considerations here really best apply to undergraduate education. Graduate education is a different sort of engagement, and fits less easily in the analysis below.

There is a recent chapter by Alajoutsijärvi et al (referenced below), which provides a comparison of the two approaches. Using and amending this, I think we can see the drift. The first cell in a row is the issue, the second how the Newman/Humboldt university addresses it , the second the academic capitalist university. There is of course some overlap.

Issue Newman/Humboldt Academic Capitalism
Ethos Serve Society Serve individuals and corporates
We have seen an increasing push away from anti-utilitarian towards the explicit placing of universities as being there to serve the needs of the market. We see companies critiquing graduates as not having the skills required to immediately begin to add value and expecting universities to provide these. This is in fact in direct conflict with S12 of the 1997 act. So why are we hearing this and why are we acting on it?
Internal connections A society of science Silos
The growing emphasis internally in universities on schools and departments covering their costs alone, the premiums placed in promotion on discipline specific issues, the fragmentation of entry and output have all pushed faculty and students into greater and greater atomistic spaces.
Top Advisors Collegial and internal External
Section 16 of the 1997 act has a plethora of external persons to be on boards and other governing authorities.
Command and Control Collegial Bureaucratic and top down
Basic units structured Cognate scholars in a department Accounting based rationale
Management accounting is a useful tool to allocate things like shared service costs. It is perhaps unfortunate that we have seen management accounting rationales used as the main arguments to merge departments and remove units. Having small cognate departments may complicate administrative and other tasks but there is a cost to restructuring as well as a cost to not doing so.
Power locus Faculty Deans and administrators
We do not yet have executive deans with the power of hire and fire. But we are moving that way. Deans used to be colleagues who were also chairs of faculty meetings, not remote college officers moving and shaking at the center. That said, we see more and more that individual faculty have little say in the governance of schools and departments. How often do schools meet to decide on strategies and approaches? How often do these overrule higher levels of hierarchy? Even within schools and departments should they wish it heads and directors of various programs can proceed unhindered, without oversight and autonomously.
Personnel Tenured faculty Increased casualization
We do not have detailed institution level breakdowns of teaching and research staff as between full, part, adjunct, clinical, casual and other. What we can note is that there is a general trend worldwide for casualization of the academic workforce. We know that in business plans put forward for expansion there is typically a deterioration of the fulltime/other ratio. While a mix is good, we need to keep a core. We also need to be aware that there is a general uncertainty as regards the status of tenure. We would be naive to think that these threats and trends will not continue without strong institutional counterarguments. These have not been forthcoming to date.
Salary gradient Modest Large
Salaries in universities are contentious. Those that universities as basically secondary schools for kids who can drink legally see salaries for what appear to be an extremely curtailed working year. The perception of overpaid and underworked academics is not helped by corporate level payments to the top echelons. Payments at this level reinforce two negative trends. First they cement the notion of universities as competing in the corporate space. Second, while nowhere near as steep as in the corporate world, an excessive gradient suggests a them-us dichotomy, with the top college officers no longer inhabiting the same world as the professoriate not to mention the untenured contractual teaching fodder.
Connections to corporate world Via endowments Close and allied
Throughout Ireland colleges are appointing directors of corporate this and that. We see the funding bodies making it very clear that they do not value basic research but instead value and rate only applied and industry related research. Despite concern expressed at the relative lack of basic research funding this attitude has persisted. IBEC cheer loudly the continued switch towards marketable, applied, comercialisable research. Universities chase each other in creating enterprise units, innovation academies, entrepreneurial incubators etc.
Language of management Administrative excellence Business and managerial
Mission statements. Key Performance Indicators. Strategic Planning. These are three examples of how language has been degraded – aims, measures and plans are not enough it seems. The use of managerial duckspeak serves to obscure the actual aims, which results all too often in nobody being able to be held to account as nobody knows what anyone was to do. Managerial terminology is a specialist argot and is no more appropriate for general use than any other field’s jargon or terminology.
Student role Active co-learners Empowered customers
Even the students now seem to buy into this. And that’s problematic as the ‘product’ is one whose effects last life long. Treating prospective or present or even recently graduated students as customers is akin to asking someone to rate a meal halfway through. There are countless other metaphors that can be used – none of them contain the subtext that as consumers the students are always right and that the role of student-faculty interaction is best mediated by market mechanisms. For example the metaphor of universities as a jazz group, where all work together to a common theme and the unique contribution of each aids the all, or universities as sporting teams, where leadership and excellence are required of all even though some may be nominally in charge. Again, this metaphor hijacking has been unchallenged by the leaders of the academy, to everyone’s detriment.
Students are prepared for Civic society critical thinking and democratic engagement Jobs and markets
What is seen as important Tradition, heritage, reputation Ranking, personal fulfillment
Ranking is a game. It has rules and some are better than others at skirting them. Ranking season has emerged, and there has grown an unholy ordinal fetish about being in the top X of ranking Y. This disregards the fact that in reality Irish universities are world-class by the standards of the modal higher ed institution. What is most distressing is that external influencers – media, state and industry will at one and the same time bemoan the ordinality of universities without showing the slightest willingness to aid them in better playing the game. Again, this has gone not just unchallenged by the boards of the universities but has in fact been reinforced by their buying into it.
Campuses Modest places of learning Corporate style architectural wonderlands
In recent years we have seen the pace of development accelerate, with physical infrastructure development seeming to take the place of intellectual. With few exceptions the buildings we now construct will not be there in 50 years time. The same should not be the case for intellectual edifices. Rather than investing in Pharaonic capital projects we should as a sector have had our leaders pressing for spending on human capital, the impact of which is longer by far. Decent, modest buildings which are flexible and longlived are good investments. Better are even more modest buildings with the savings devoted to staff or students. Plato’s academy consisted of a park. Would his legacy have been stronger with a next gen high spec smart building?
Faculty view of students Younger colearners Markets to be exploited
Admission Best qualified Hard sell
Universities now employ large administrative cohorts whose sole role is to market the institution. Often these split into domestic and international, graduate and undergraduate, proliferating and growing until we find the equivalent of a large school is employed in the hard sell. The notion of students being in some way attracted, autonomously, to excellence in teaching and research, is seemingly anathema. This gives rise to the farcical situation where monies continue to be spent on marketing while that which is being marketed, teaching and research, is starved. In an environment of mass enrollment it is even more foolish to devote marketing resources to an internecine student accretion war. There is some justification for information provision, especially to overseas and marginalised students, but pure marketing seems a dubious luxury spend.
Intake Steady state Cyclical boom/bust
Allied to this marketing led student recruitment approach we find cyclicality. This is reinforced when we react to external stimuli without thinking through the long-term effects. Universities find themselves with courses unfilled and then a few years later grossly oversubscribed. This corn-hog model ill suits organizations which have high fixed costs of people (but ideally suits one characterized by a casualised workforce). Playing to the perceived market skills gap de jure is a recipe for cyclical uncertainty. If we were to have followed the market pleas we would now have large underused japanese language departments founded in the 1980′ coexisting with the enormous business process re engineering schools from the 1990s and the computer legacy schools founded in the wake of the Y2K mania. Right now we are mid-fad in innovation/entrepreneurship.
Origin of internationalisation Selective and need based resource extraction model
International students are the new gold rush. Every university in the west is rushing to the same set of countries in a Gadarene frenzy to sign up as many undergraduate students as possible as fast as possible. That this is of great fiscal benefit to the recipient universities is undoubted. The unasked question is the effect it has on the donor countries. A pure commercial nexus of relationships, whereby graduates of universities become imbued with the mores and culture of the university country, replaces soft power. This is not the model for long-term sustained mutual benefits.
Drive for internationalisation Human society Profit making
Form of internationalisation Cooperative and shared Exploitative
Perceived benefits of internationalisation Mutual advantage and learning Economic benefits
Mobility Two way ideal Students to us, programs from us
Regulation Tight Unregulated




Reference :

Alajoutsijärvi, Kimmo, Katariina Juusola, and Marjo Siltaoja. “Academic Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Birth of Acamanic Capitalism.” Dialogues in Critical Management Studies 2 (2013): 91-121.

5 thoughts on “How far have we drifted from the Newman/Humboldt Idea of a university?

  1. Pingback: A collection of links to my posts on higher education | Brian M. Lucey

  2. Greg Foley

    An awful lot here to discuss! Unfortunately I have labs now.

    One thing that strikes me is that we need to remember the context. Universities exist in a very different world now and what they have become needs to be seen in the context of what the world has become. The rise of mass third level education in the West, greater societal expectations, greater transparency and accountability (except for some obvious exceptions), a globalized economic system in which different countries play by different rules (hence our obsession with the ‘knowledge economy’), the ‘who should pay’ question etc. etc. Yes, there are maddening aspects of the modern university (I’m doing my ‘Academic Activity Profile’ at the moment), but I see no clear vision ahead of what the university needs to become

    In the Irish Times recently, Ronnie Munck said we need to ‘re-imagine the University’. He was right but I’m not hearing any real ideas from him or anyone else.

    We need a Newman for the 21st century.

  3. andrewggibson

    I think that the invocation of the hybrid entity “Newman/Humboldt” here obscures more than it reveals, and sets up a simplified picture of how things are. One point to note is that there were two different ideas of the university, ideas that diverged from one another quite significantly. Newman developed his model of the ideal university in opposition to Wilhelm von Humboldt (the philosopher and Prussian minister for education, rather than his brother Alexander). Where Humboldt discussed education in terms of the nation, the Prussian state, Newman wanted a neo-gothic medieval university for an elite, without regard for wider concerns. Research, as found in the German model, was anathema.

    As such, regarding the first point of ethos, While von Humboldt’s ideal ethos was of a university that served the state (quite different to society), Newman’s was a self-serving ethos of the elite, corporate (in the old sense) university. Furthermore, Newman wrote at a time when this ideal of his was passing out of existence, and had this not been the case, newer institutions such as University College London and King’s College London would not have been established. Given that they were, and that by the early 20th century the number of students enrolled in the University of London exceeded the combined numbers of Oxford and Cambridge, there was a clearly a need going served that Newman’s model, for one, would never have addressed. Saying this is not to try and defend academic capitalism, but these changes may be more indicative of a movement away from the nation state (whose concerns populate the second column) to what Philip Bobbitt terms the market state (found in the academic capitalism column). A view to the broader social context in which we find ourselves might gives us more clues of how to proceed rather than turning to historical ideals that evaporate as soon as we examine them closely.

  4. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » How far have we drifted from the Newman/Humboldt Idea of a university?

  5. brianmlucey Post author

    Just to clarify – of course these C19 exemplars are unsuited to the present, in their original form. However, as exemplars they are good. Drift, unsanctioned and unasked for, is not a good idea


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