What is a university?

Asking the question “What is a university?” is similar to asking “What is a restaurant?”

You can give a vague answer, but it’s only tapping the surface.

On Wikipedia, the first paragraph on the word ‘Restaurant’ is:

“A restaurant is a retail establishment that serves prepared food to customers. Service is generally for eating on premises, though the term has been used to describe take-out establishments and food delivery services. The term covers many types of venues and a diversity of styles of cuisine and service.”

So the term is used loosely, it covers a number of situations, and it refers to many different types of food and service.

A university is similar. We know it’s a place of study for all types of Higher Education, but where do you go from there?

The basic concept is fine, but it’s such a wide-ranging term that you’d have difficulty getting much further without breaking into the specifics regarding individual universities.

So I guess the only good answer to “What is a university?” is a subjective one.  So let me ask…what is a university to you? What is your experience and how do you understand the concept to work best?


  1. To me, a “university” is not very different from a “school” in that it is an institution where students to go to equip themselves with knowledge and skills that would prepare them for the working world.

    A lot of emphasis is being placed on the grades that the students achieve, but I think the most important lesson a student must learn in the university is the lesson of life. It is not so much whether you passed all your papers or not.

    It is about learning the soft skills that you would definitely need to use once you graduate. It is about learning how to carry yourself (i.e. humbly), and it is about learning how to present (and sell) yourself.

    I have a friend who graduated first class, and who proceeded to pursue his Master’s. Being a smart guy, he completed his Master’s a few months ahead of his peers, and he decided to apply for a lecturership in the university, but failed. This goes to say that however colourful your achievements is, they are only on paper. Employers want to hire employees who are able to perform in the job, not just on paper.

  2. @pelf, thanks for your answer. I think you’re absolutely right about living life for life itself, rather than the grades.

    This week’s Times Higher Education was up on the web. I couldn’t believe that the main feature and leader are about the definition of a university. Great timing and something I’m looking forward to devouring in full tonight.

    Diversity challenge
    Leader: Cardinal lessons and virtues

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