A university is a self-perpetuating oligarchy.
A university chooses its own members, restricts membership, and governs from self-selected internal member promotion.
Ok, so this a somewhat platonic abstraction of a private university, and the selection is from the meta-pool of members of the ensemble of universities, that are suitably like the particular university.
But, a self-perpetuating oligarchy it is.
Public universities, well, it gets complicated – they may be totally under external control or under nominal external control or have some open feedback loops to the external world with loose coupling.
I’d argue all universities are pulled to the ideal of the autonomous and self-perpetuating oligarchic model, but most are resource constrained.
This is not by design, it is emergent behaviour: universities that do not do this do not survive as institutions.
Further, the universities that exemplify this best are those with oldest continuous histories are coherent institutions.
- Self preservation and perpetuation.
This is done at several levels: the production of future members of the university from the pool of students; the production of future students from the pool of ex-students; the production of new students; the production of administrators from the pool of university members; and, the production of an external pool of sympaticos who can act to protect and perpetuate the university.
This almost all emergent behaviour stuff.
- Preservation of knowledge.
Especially abstract, obscure and useless knowledge.
It is why universities tend to have libraries and museums and stuff.
It is where people who speak dead, or dying, languages are; where people worry about the patterns of numbers on multi-dimensional symmetric dice; and bridges to nowhere; and where they obsessively measure the magnetoresistivity of rare earths, and layers of two different rare earths, and three different rare earths and… useless crap, at the time, just in case.
- Accumulation of new knowledge.
Every different kind of ant. The dying languages we didn’t know we couldn’t speak.
The nine billion names of god. The hidden links between think tanks and newly elected legislators. The change in magnetoresistance in thin layer rare earth films when you change the magnetic field.
- Generation of new knowledge. Research.
Like algorithms for efficiently searching large digital libraries. Got to sort all that knowledge.
- Provide higher education opportunity to sufficiently capable, motivated or well prepared graduates of the secondary education system.
- Socialize students of heterogenous background and provide social networking opportunities for a targeted and self-selected population. Including meritocratic opportunities for social mobility.
- Generate a broad reserve of a well educated population with a broad range of general knowledge of higher education topics, providing context, and, in particular, encourage distribution of concepts, methodology, and the motivation to learn and understand through independent thinking.
- Provide technical training in advanced fields; generate new practical techniques; provide professional training at the masters level and higher.
Learning, per se, is actually way down there.
Vocational training to provide short term technical skills for “jobs”: not so much.
The professional schools do tend to come under the university umbrella, but even they generally want students to first get the liberal arts education and then the advanced professional training.
This, unfortunately, is not what a lot of people think universities ought to be doing.
They want the guaranteed return of a well paid job through practical training.
But, the effect by which university educated people tend, on average, to get higher paid jobs overall, and have lower unemployment rates in aggregate, is not so much a direct consequence of some vocational training, it is incidental to the general education and the meta-learning.
Sure, students learn skills, advanced techniques, key concepts etc., but the purpose is not job training, it just happens to have mostly generated the sort of people who do well in good jobs.
With the caveat of the postgraduate professional training – any employment field which is controlled by a professional association which requires an accredited advanced degree.
So, there are institutes of higher education that do vocational training.
They give people directly applicable skills for immediate job tasks.
This is good.
It is not, generally, the purpose of a university, per se.
Some people think it ought to be.
I think what they want is more vocational training which is not actually done terribly well or effectively at universities.
Really some would be better done by guild training and apprenticeships.
But you still need the universities.
For all those other things.
So, the next big questions are: what is the education of the university students; and why should the general population support the universities when what a lot of them want are jobs requiring vocational training, not liberal education?