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The (Vo-Tech) Idea of the University

Curriculum Planning and Development

The (Vo-Tech) Idea of the University

Throughout the 1850s, John Henry (Cardinal) Newman published a series of lectures that he grouped under the title The Idea of the University. In this work Newman, despite his own profound faith, argued that a university was by its very nature an institution dedicated to the free range of the human mind, not the inculcation of any particular orthodoxy or set of values. The exploration of controversial topics was to be encouraged at a university, even if that exploration led to discussion of issues that made authorities uncomfortable. In fact, the purpose of a university education wasn’t to make people comfortable; it was to make them wise. For this reason, university education often shakes people’s convictions by causing them to understand that issues aren’t as simple (or simplistic) as they had once imagined. Self-doubt and a certain degree of skepticism are among the benefits of any college education worthy of the name. Confidence more commonly derives from a lack of knowledge, not an excess of it.

You might think [being ill-informed] ought to make … a person modest in his enunciations; not so: too often it happens that, in proportion to the narrowness of his knowledge, is, not his distrust of it, but the deep hold it has upon him, his absolute conviction of his own conclusions, and his positiveness in maintaining them. He has the obstinacy of the bigot, whom he scorns, without the bigot’s apology, that he has been taught, as he thinks, his doctrine is from heaven. Newman and Turner (1996) 61.

Newman’s ideas, which are shared by many if not most faculty members at universities throughout the Western Hemisphere, seem to be speaking about an institution entirely different from the one described by U.S. governors and legislators when they talk about the purpose of higher education. In their marvelous annual survey of comments made about colleges and universities by governors in the State of the State speeches (www.aascu.org/policy/state-policy/2013/documents/stateofthestateaddresses.pdf), Thomas Harnish and Emily Parker outline the issues that appear to be driving the funding policies for public institution.

What is interesting in Harnish and Parker’s survey is not just the specific issues mentioned by the various governors but their shared assumptions about what higher education is for and why states should bother supporting it.

  • State universities exist for economic development, most notably as a mechanism to prepare citizens to enter the workforce (Alabama, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin).
  • University research is conducted primarily to develop technology that has commercial value (Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and Washington).
  • Making college more affordable should be a state priority (California, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia).
  • A significant measure of a university’s success is the degree to which it focuses on or is expanding STEM programs (Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Washington). 

The difference in basic assumptions between Newman and the governors is striking. In The Idea of the University, the purpose of higher education is increasing the knowledge of individuals and expanding the knowledge of society as a whole; the feature that distinguishes the university from other types of professional training is that it pursues all areas of knowledge equally; as a result, the university is a unique institution that should be regarded as the highest achievement of western society. For the governors, on the other hand, the purpose of higher education is training people for jobs and developing the economy; the feature that distinguishes the university from other types of professional training is its emphasis on the STEM disciplines; as a result, the university is not different in mission from community colleges and vo-tech schools, merely different in that it fulfills this function at a slightly more advanced level. 

This recent vo-tech idea of the university is also based on the assumption that higher education should be as affordable as possible. The governors of both Texas and Florida have championed the idea of a “$10,000 Four-Year Degree,” arguing that the cost of college tuition has risen far faster than costs in other sectors of the economy. In the words of Rick Scott of Florida, “The rising cost of a four-year degree at a university not only makes it difficult for our children to obtain a degree, but makes planning for college difficult for Florida families. Since 2006-2007, the price of a prepaid 4-year university plan for a newborn has increased from $14,616 to $53,729–more than 350 percent increase in six years.” www.flgov.com/2013/07/01/governor-rick-scott-calls-congress-irresponsible-to-recess-while-student-loan-rates-double/ 

Or as Megan McArdle phrased the problem in the September 17, 2012, issue of Newsweek:

The price of a McDonald’s hamburger has risen from 85 cents in 1995 to about a dollar today. The average price of all goods and services has risen about 50 percent. But the price of a college education has nearly doubled in that time. Is the education that today’s students are getting twice as good? Are new workers twice as smart? Have they become somehow massively more expensive to educate? McArdle (2012) 24.

Although McArdle clearly expects our response to be otherwise, the answer to all three questions may well be “Yes.” As William Baumol points out in The Cost Disease, manufactured goods, such as computers and McDonald’s hamburgers, either go down in price or become expensive more slowly as technology improves our ability to produce high-quality items quickly. But service industries heavily dependent on educated professionals, like health care and higher education, outpace inflation as technology improves since the employees who provide that service become more skilled and thus more expensive.

Moreover, that “high cost” actually becomes a low cost when the issue is examined in its entirety. “Expensive” health care causes employees to miss fewer days of work, avoid the need for cures that are even more expensive than the costs of prevention, and remain more productive while on the job. “Expensive” higher education produces citizens who pay more in taxes, cost less in social services, achieve greater fitness and thus require less health care, and participate more actively in state and local government. (http://trends.collegeboard.org/education-pays) In other words, there are plenty of reasons why both health care and college are well worth the substantial investment made in them by both individuals and societies. But in order to understand those reasons, we need first to see beyond the Vo-Tech Idea of the University.


Baumol, W. J., & De, F. D. M. (2012). The cost disease: Why computers get cheaper and health care doesn’t. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McArdle, M. (September 17, 2012). The college bubble. Newsweek. 160(12)12, 22-28.

Newman, J. H., & Turner, F. M. (1996). The idea of a university. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.

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