Stefan Collini describes his short book as a "polemic" - a genre, he says, that "overlaps with the genres of satire, jeremiad, manifesto and essay in cultural criticism". It is really two books, the second half more polemical and the first half an essay in cultural criticism. The first half is as good a discussion of the question Collini poses as any in the extensive literature on the topic; the second half reprints five critical pieces from journals such as the London Review of Books, attacking aspects of government policy - from the obsession with trying to measure research productivity to Lord Browne's proposals for the wholesale revamping of higher education in the interests of pushing the costs of provision on to students and fostering something resembling a market in higher education. This last piece provoked the Universities Minister, David Willetts, into attempting a response; it was a gallant effort but no more persuasive than his other attempts to defend an ill-thought-out and ill-informed policy.
The two halves of the book hang together because Collini has a very definite vision of what universities can contribute to the welfare of the societies that shelter them and pay for them, and an equally definite vision of the ways in which the higher education policies of successive UK governments since 1980 have made it harder for them to do it. He only rarely suggests what they might have done instead but on at least one occasion observes - rightly, in my view - that the best model for expanding higher education economically and without threatening high-quality teaching and research was he California Master Plan of the 1960s, and that the UK should have copied it.
Collini has a strong sense of the variety of institutions that have called themselves and call themselves universities. There is not much in common between the University of Gloucestershire, the University of Calcutta and Ohio State University, let alone any of these and the Humboldt University of Berlin. As one of the country's most distinguished intellectual historians, Collini's natural mode is historical. Here, this yields a particular treat in the shape of a long discussion of John Henry Newman's much quoted and not much read Idea of a University that could be extracted from its context and handed to anyone curious about Newman, universities or the craft of the intellectual historian.
Here, it is part of an argument that begins with two brief chapters to give readers their bearings, the first on "the global multiversity" and the second a "very short history" of the English university. We might think that the institutions that come with the label of university vary so much from one country to another that any attempt to say "what universities are for" is hopeless; as Collini writes, in many places they are post-secondary technical colleges, while in others, the salaries of the head coaches of their football and basketball teams suggest that their function is to nurture professional athletes. In Europe, many universities have to take all comers, with research being hived off into research institutes and elite education concentrated in grandes écoles.
That such different institutions seek to adopt the label of "university", while no university seeks to adopt the label "college of accounting", suggests there is something, however elusive, that people think a university is about, which is different from, say, the provision of vocational training, or immediately usable commercial and industrial research. A university may provide the umbrella under which these shelter but they shelter within some larger enterprise. So, at the very least, universities provide post-secondary education beyond vocational training, pursue advanced scholarship or research not wholly dictated by immediate practical needs, do this in the context of more than one discipline and enjoy a measure of institutional autonomy in doing it.
The obvious, eye-catching feature of the university scene is the multiplication of institutions and the ever-increasing pace of change in what they do and how they operate. Collini's focus is on the English university scene and particularly on the curious fact that without a coherent view of what our universities are for, there is little hope of standing up to the absurdities of government policy or of engaging in "constructive dialogue" with ministers in anything other than the euphemistic sense of giving in while grumbling.
As a result, two damaging ideas win by default. The first is that the only thing universities can be for is aiding the UK economy; the other, closely allied, is that universities are businesses like other businesses, producing employment-ready graduates for the workforce and doing research that will translate into innovation and enhanced productivity. Since they are businesses like other businesses, they should be run like other businesses, hence the incessant tinkering in the interests of greater productivity, most of which has been self-defeating.
But, Collini says, universities are not businesses. Although they have been forced to compete with one another for research funding, they are not trying to seize market share from their competitors. The recent craze for world rankings tends to reinforce the sense that there is a global marketplace and that just as the motor industry lost out to the Germans and Japanese, so it is only a matter of time before Universities UK plc loses out to the Chinese or whomever. However, what if universities are more like museums than businesses, performing a valuable public function but not selling products in competition with other similar producers?
Such a suggestion evokes the thought of Newman and The Idea of a University. Was Newman not the great defender of useless knowledge? Is his book not a rallying cry for the defenders of the idea that a university exists to produce civilised young people, rather than to enable them to produce ever-increasing quantities of consumable stuff?
Collini's dry style is at its best when pointing out that The Idea of a University has a pretty odd history. It began as a series of lectures justifying the existence of a Catholic university college that Newman had been invited to set up in 1851. The college failed but Newman had resigned long before, delivering the last of a second series of lectures that made up the published book the night before he left Ireland, never to return. The final revision was in 1889, the year before he died.
Everyone seizes on Newman's three chapters on liberal education but ignores the framework in which Newman inserted them - an entirely dogmatic insistence on the supremacy of Catholic theology as the "right reason" that corrects all subordinate doctrines. Modern readers also flinch from Newman's claim that a liberal education exists to produce "gentlemen". Yet Collini extracts what is surely the essence of the matter and something that does not need Newman's seductive prose to make it persuasive. This is the idea that a university setting allows us to ask the questions we can't ask when we are in the middle of some practical task. Universities exist to extend human understanding - of the physical world, of culture and of ourselves.
The view of successive governments that universities exist to promote prosperity gets things back to front. Prosperity isn't its own justification and the mere piling up of yet more stuff can hardly be the end of human existence. "[R]ather than saying that extending human understanding is valuable because it provides the means to prosperity," Collini writes, "we should surely say that one of the reasons prosperity is valuable is because it supplies the wherewithal to extend human understanding."
Not that I imagine that the new breed of CEO vice-chancellor, let alone a government that parks universities under the umbrella of "business, innovation and science", will understand the point or even take any notice of it.
Alan Ryan was warden of New College, Oxford, until 2009