Newman’s ‘The Idea of a University’

Melbourne University

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Last week it was my pleasure to attend a symposium hosted by the Rector of Newman College held at the University of Melbourne in honour of John Henry Newman for whom the College is named. The symposium consisted of presentations from the Vice Chancellors of the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Australian Catholic University. I have to say it was one of the most interesting and thought provoking events that I have attended. Each of the speakers spoke extremely well, with logic and humour and great thoughtfulness. It was most interesting to see each VC’s interpretation of John Henry Newman’s idea of the university and how that idea still resonates today even though the modern university is now perhaps more influenced by the thinking of Wilhem von Humboldt and Clark Kerr.

Each VC made reference to Professor Simon Marginson’s 2008 paper Clark Kerr and The Uses of the University [PDF] which I thoroughly recommend and I will draw  on some ideas from that paper here as well.

Now Newman’s idea was that universities should primarily be teaching organisations that emphasised:

the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than its advancement

For Newman there was no ‘nexus between teaching and research’ (a concept that, incidentally, I think today is mostly observed in the exception rather than the rule, and that’s being generous). Specifically Newman said that:

To discover and teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person

Newman was also strongly in favour of ‘liberal education’ which he distinguished from commercial or professional education.

Both Professor Glyn Davies (University of Melbourne) and Professor Ed Byrne (Monash University) talked about the way in which Newman’s ideas about the University had been superseded almost as soon as they had been written as the Humboldtian model of universities took hold in Europe and then the US in the mid nineteenth century. This model emphasised research and the idea of a teaching/research nexus. For Wilhelm von Humboldt:

Just as primary instruction makes the teacher possible, so he renders himself dispensable through schooling at the secondary level. The university teacher is thus no longer a teacher and the student is no longer a pupil. Instead the student conducts research on his own behalf and the professor supervises his research and supports him in it

The Humboldtian model (and more specifically its refinement by Clark Kerr in the 1960’s) is the primary model of universities today. In fact, as Professor Davies pointed out, in Australia today, it would not legally be possible to create a university based on Newman’s idea of a university because every university is required to carry out research.

Professor Davies also observed that Australia only has one kind of university and that in the US, for example, there are many different kinds of university fulfilling many different needs. The question is, do we need more types of university in Australia? I think we probably do.

As I mentioned above, the kind of university that we do have now is influenced by Humboldt and, subsequently Clark Kerr, who was President of the University of California from 1958 to 1967. He was a visionary person but clearly more focussed on the research function of the university than on the teaching function.

I do like Clark Kerr’s wit though. When he was sacked from the University of California by Reagan in 1967 he said that he left the university as he had joined it – “Fired with enthusiasm”. On the publication of his book “The Purposes of the University” he told an audience that:

The three purposes of the University? – To provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.

He also famously said that:

I have sometimes thought of it [the university] as a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking

In fact Kerr said that the university was so many things to so many people that he described it as a multiversity. Many of Kerr’s thoughts about the nature of a modern university have been adopted around the world. He was, after all, President of the the most successful university system in the most successful economy in the world that was riding a technological wave largely driven by research and innovation in American universities.

Now Kerr predicted many things but he do not predict the communications revolution and the highly connected nature modern society. This new connectedness together with the massification of higher education over the last twenty years means that Kerr’s thoughts about the the purposes of a university now need a lot of rethinking. That is bigger question than this post will allow. I will return to it in future.

How much of Newman is left in modern universities?

Getting back to Newman, Simon Marginson observes that whilst many of Newman’s ideas of the university have disappeared he still has considerable influence in modern universities.  The example of the Melbourne model was given by a questioner at the symposium. At the University of Melbourne students complete a general first degree before going on to study for a specialised Masters degree.  Is this a modern version of Newman’s liberal education but set in a research university context? Newman’s ideas are also evident in Steven Schwartz’s (VC of Macquarie University) presentation “Restoring Wisdom to Universities” which is well worth watching.

Professor Byrne described Monash University’s initiative to employ academic staff on teaching focussed terms of employment although he did say that this would be less than 10% of the academic workforce and they would be called something different. The idea is to provide an alternative career structure for non research focussed academic staff. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. All academics know that just about the only way to progress up a career ladder at an Australian university is through the production of research quantum. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that it is easier to measure research output than it is to measure teaching quality. Universities are very unsophisticated organisations and anything more complex than counting numbers of journal articles is generally very difficult to do. Teaching quality is notoriously difficult to measure.

What of a future model of a university?

Professor Davies talked of the way that technology is changing knowledge distribution and Simon Marginson talks of a global research university (GRU). I will talk about this more in future posts. It largely draws on ideas resulting from the changing distribution of knowledge throughout global society in a highly connected world and to address it now would not do it justice.


A morning thinking about Newman, Humboldt and Kerr is stimulating enough. Throw in Simon Marginson’s thoughts about the GRU and three Vice Chancellors and you end up mulling those ideas for a long time afterwards which is way it has taken a week to get this blog post out and even then it has been difficult to constrain it.

The big questions for me are:

  • I know all universities are not the same but should all universities be of the same basic model? Possibly, but varying considerably along a spectrum as they do now.
  • Should they be conceived of having the same purpose?
  • If, so what purpose should that be?
  • Is it Kerr’s multiversity?
  • What about Humboldt’s research/teaching nexus? I think many universities are struggling with that, despite the rhetoric.
  • What emphasis should be placed on received knowledge?
  • What about received wisdom?
  • What about teaching?
  • More importantly for me, what about learning?
  • How does the new distribution of knowledge affect the role of universities in generating and disseminating knowledge?

Simon Marginson’s ideas about the GRU are closest to my thinking but then he has the advantage of writing only two years ago about things that I see happening around me. We’ll talk more of that in future.

Exciting times.


von Humboldt, W. (1970). On the spirit and the organizational framework of intellectual institutions in Berlin, in University reform in Germany, Minerva, 8, pp. 242-250. Memorandum by Humboldt written some time between Autumn 1809 and Autumn 1810 and originally published in German in 1900.

Kerr, C. (2001). The Uses of the University, Fifth Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. First published 1963.

Marginson, S. Clark Kerr and The Uses of the University [PDF]. CSHE Ideas and Issues in Higher Education seminar. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne December 15 2008.

Newman, J. H. (1982). The Idea of a University. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. First published 1852.

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