What's the University For?

A Chaplaincy-coordinated series of events debating the purpose of the University.

‘What’s the University For?’ The Series so far, 2016-17


‘What’s the University for?’ (WUF) is currently running two tracks:

  1. The Sustainable University, following up the Paris talks of 2015 with a large event, ‘The Personal Politics of Climate Change’ in February 2016, from which we continue to generate initiatives;
  2. The Compassionate University, developing conversations and practices that that build community and compassion within and beyond university life, harnessing themes that have come up throughout the WUF Series.


We began the WUF Series in the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy in 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:

  • What is the nature and purpose of our university?
  • What do we hope for it and from it?
  • How can we co-create any changes that we’d love to see?


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 Edinburgh Global.


The Student Association and General Council have joined us 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 materials available 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. Two 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 for the end of the academic year is an annual "Thank You Tea" to which people apply and bring a guest who has helped them at the University.  A number of students and staff have brought lab technicians, cleaners, receptionists, and particularly appreciated tutors or students.


Harriet Harris, Chaplain, University of Edinburgh