The Fully Functioning University

For the last ten years along with Linda Heath and Tom Bourner from Brighton Business School, I have been reflecting on and researching the role of the university. Over a series of four articles, all published in the highly ranked Higher Education Review we have considered in depth how universities serve society, foster student learning and contribute to knowledge.

The first article explored the question ‘what endeavours have been present in all the stages of the Western University since its birth in the Middle Ages?’ It found an answer in terms of the tripartite mission: the advancement of knowledge, the higher education of its students and the wider world beyond the university.  However, in each stage one part has dominated the other two which have been expressed in ways that reflect and serve that domination.  The fully-functioning university concept emerged to describe a university that seeks to realise each part of the tripartite mission directly and not by placing two parts at the service of the currently dominant part.  In other words, the fully-functioning university values each part of the tripartite mission in its own right.

Two subsequent papers explored, respectively, the nature of a higher education that would be offered by such a fully-functioning university and how it would seek to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.  The final paper explored how such a university would seek to contribute to those beyond the walls of the university i.e. to society more widely.  This is usually referred to, particularly in the UK, as the ‘third leg’ of the tripartite mission.

Within most universities, there are vocal advocates for more emphasis on research and the advancement of knowledge and others who argue strenuously for greater emphasis on teaching, student learning and educational development with yet others, usually a very much smaller group, who want more focus on ‘third leg’ activities.  The resources of each university, however, are limited so these groups often compete for the resources. The fully-functioning university (FFU) concept offers a broader perspective within which the narrowness of the claims of the different interest groups can be recognised and, arguably, reconciled.  It shifts the focus of attention to the size of the total output of the university and away from the size of particular slices of the ‘pie’.  In practical terms, this means looking for complementarities between activities that contribute to the three parts of the tripartite mission. The success of USA universities over the last century has shown that greater emphasis on third leg activities is compatible with greater success in research and developing new and effective HE practices.

Which universities will thrive in the 21st century and which will languish?  A plausible answer to this question is that it is those universities that are recognised as making the greatest contribution to society which are likely to flourish most in the long run.  In the final analysis, the value of the advancement of knowledge and the higher education of students derives from their contribution to society and, more generally, the world.  Third leg activities make that contribution directly. Universities that contribute greater value to society increase their value to society and are therefore likely to be more highly valued by society in the long run.  This underlines the importance of clarifying the nature of a fully-functioning university’s contribution to the third part of the tripartite mission.

This series of publications about the Fully-Functioning University and the tripartite mission, have been recognised and honoured by the Business School in an award. Head of research, Professor Mark Cowling announced that “it is my great pleasure to announce my personal “RESEARCHERS OF THE YEAR AWARD FOR 2017” said Professor Cowling of the work by Professor Tom Bourner, Dr Linda Heath and Pericles ‘asher’ Rospigliosi. Professor Cowling explained “the depth of knowledge and insight that the researchers have brought to bear on issues relating to the role of Higher Education Institutes in society and the value added that their multifaceted contributions create is very impressive at a time when many outsiders are engaging in ill-informed debates questioning their very existence. Scholarly work at its best.”

The research has thrown up unexpected findings in a range of areas including thoughts on the origins of employability skills which include Latin and the role of the New Vocationalism in Higher Education. For more on these and other topics:

New Vocationalism

The fully-functioning university and its contribution to society (2017)

The fully-functioning university and its contribution to the advancement of knowledge (2016)

The fully-functioning university and its higher education (2013)

The Fully Functioning University (2008)