‘What’s the University For?’ The Series so far, September 2015

In an earlier post, we argued that questions about character and the virtues cannot be avoided in thinking about higher education, because the independent learning that universities demand of students requires the exercise of some character traits, even if these are only the deviousness required for successful plagiarism or the social skills necessary for sustained free-loading.  University senior managements have picked up on this theme in the form of published lists of graduate attributes.  This connects our narrow question about philosophy teaching to the wider topic of the nature and purpose of HE.

In this post, Harriet Harris, Chaplain at the University of Edinburgh, reports on the University of Edinburgh’s What’s The University For? project. 

What’s the University for?’ is a Series we’ve been running in the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy since 2012:

  • to bring students, academic and non-academic staff together, from across the University
  • for fundamental reflection on our purpose
  • via different visions or philosophies of the university (Mediaeval/community of scholars, liberal arts, Humboldt/blue sky research, Napoleonic-functional, and in our current context in which to a large extent universities are seen as drivers for the economy)

Through panel discussions and group-work we ask ourselves:

  1. What is the nature of the University of Edinburgh, and
  2. What do we hope for it and from it?

The sessions are open to all, and each event has been planned by a diverse team of students and staff from the Colleges and various departments including the Institute for Academic Development, the Student Association and the International Office.

The Student Association and General Council joined us in 2014 to ask whether there are core values that identify the University of Edinburgh and our graduates, and whether it’s helpful to make any values explicit, as some universities do: values, or aspirations perhaps, such as collegiality; academic freedom; dignity and respect; global responsibility and impact. For all of these values it is possible to identify behaviours that either promote or undermine them, such that they guide practice, as well as contribute to a sense of Edinburgh identity.

The drive for conversations around values has also come from students who put together a proposal to broaden Edinburgh graduate attributes beyond academic skills to include integrity, social and emotional intelligence, and commitment to sustainability and the common good. This proposal has gone to Central Management Group.

What are participants hoping for from discussion of values?  To quote some of their words: a sense of belonging, a humane university, a commitment to communities locally and globally. Many students want to be co-producers, working with their tutors in developing their curricula and influencing learning and assessment styles.

We hear expressed a wish for students and staff to know one another better, and a need for the staff experience to receive attention alongside the student experience. Quick turn-around times for marking, and making teaching slides ready 24 hours in advance need to be fitted in alongside lecture-writing, admin, references for students, personal tutee support, Masters supervision and PhD reading, departmental business and so on, before research even gets a look in, although the suspicion is that staff are only interested in research.

The main benefit of the What’s the University for? Series is that it brings staff and students together for honest conversation in a way that builds understanding and fosters good relations. It encourages informal socialising and has also led to some formal collaboration on teaching and learning styles. Our two most recent events have been called: ‘Creating a University’, and ‘The Humane University’.

Links to some student blogs from these events speak partly of the value in staff and students sharing their struggles and hopes within academia:




A new initiative at the end of the academic year was the launch of an annual ‘Thank you tea’ to which people apply and bring a guest who has helped them at the University. A number of students brought lab technicians, cleaners, receptionists, or tutors. Current planning is around ‘failing for success’, such that actual or perceived failures can be mined for important lessons, rather than being felt to be a dead-end; a Sustainable University, picking up from Paris 2015; and a panel event on University and mental health, drawing on expertise from architecture, sports science, social geography and counselling with a wish-list of panelists whom we hope will be available.

Harriet Harris, Chaplain, University of Edinburgh