In an age of increasing marketisation, how do universities explain who they are? What story can they tell about their role and their value that will reach out and embrace their several constituencies?

Universities seem to approach these questions in a number of different ways. They employ a ‘work preparation’ account that emphasises the value of a university degree to a student’s employment prospects; they invoke a ‘knowledge economy’ story that highlights their instrumental value to national productivity; they tell a ‘personal growth’ tale that stresses a university education as a rite of passage; and they portray themselves as ‘custodians of culture’ devoted to contemplation and preservation on behalf of the whole community. Moreover, they tell all these stories, while continuing to present their ‘intrinsic merit’ as institutions of disinterested scholarship and learning.

Such multiple narratives may well be appropriate to the many roles that universities have and will continue play, but in recent years some of these stories have started to drown out others. In particular, universities’ adoption of the language of instrumentality and their eagerness to sell themselves to governments, industry and students as institutions that are vital to economic growth, has come at the cost of their self-presentation as places that foster the messier, less profitable, and less quantifiable aspects of understanding what it is to be alive. Although a rear-guard action has been mounted in the wake of the Browne Report and the Higher Education White Paper, the ground has been conceded.

In his opening lecture for the Idea of the University series at Cambridge, Stefan Collini recently argued that among the public at large there is a much greater reservoir of appreciation for the work universities do than the official discourses – both those of reform and resistance – recognise or allow. He suggested that, despite their many roles, there continues to be strong a popular desire for universities ‘to incarnate a set of aspirations and ideals that go beyond any form of economic return’. Universities, Collini concluded, need to start speaking to this audience.

It should not need stating that the desire to make meaning of life is not just the province of the privileged. Everyone seeks to understand the mysteries of the world, and everyone searches for stories that frame their existence and that connect them to the past and the future.

Universities are not the only institutions that can speak to this need, but they are increasingly among the few that are explicitly dedicated to doing so. In them teachers and students alike learn about the many and various ways people understand and have understood the world, each other, and themselves. As such they are places dedicated to the messy, ongoing, and deeply uncertain ‘business’ of life – a business they share with us all.

It is high time that universities once again told this story about themselves. Indeed, as Melanie Fullick points out, as the brokenness of the ‘work preparation’ narrative becomes ever more evident to graduates unable to find a job, it becomes increasingly imperative that they do so.

For stories are not just a reflection of reality, they also shape and define it. The stories universities tell about themselves will determine who they become.

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