The mission of contemporary university through the lenses of time and space

Analysis of the main components of the mission of the modern university through the prism of the fundamental philosophical categories of time and space. Studying and characterization of learning as a process of translating knowledge from the past.

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The mission of contemporary university through the lenses of time and space

S.V. Kurbatov


In this paper we try to analyze the main components of the mission of contemporary university through the lenses of time and space. At temporal intersection we have a kind of competing of teaching (knowledge from the past) and research (knowledge from the future). At spatial intersection nationalization (protection of the discourses of particular national culture) competes with internationalization (global influences). We used international university rankings for illustration of temporal and spatial asymmetry in understanding the mission of contemporary university.

Key words: university mission, university rankings, teaching, research, nationalization, internationalization, temporal intersection, spatial intersection.


After the Catholic Church university is the oldest social institution in the European civilization (Rothblatt and Wittrock, 1993 [22]) and during almost one thousand years of history it faced numerous dramatic changes. Last decades we often heard substantial critique of situation in this main structural element of world academic kingdom like statements about dramatic decline of university culture and, as a result, “university in ruins” (Bill Readings, 1996 [19]). At the same time, numerous researchers mention increasing of the role of university as the centre of production of knowledge and technologies in the framework of our contemporary civilization. This fact is reflected in the definitions, which modern society and its main institutions received from them: “knowledge society”, “learning society”, “knowledge based economy” (J. Valimaa and D. Hoffman, 2008 [24]). To my mind, the relevant understanding of the optimal model of contemporary university and the main dimensions of its activities is connected with the analyses of university mission through the lenses of such fundamental philosophical terms as time and space.

We could identify numerous attempts for analytical establishing such model of university in Ukrainian and foreign literature, for example in the works of Vasyl Kremen [3], Victor Andruschenko [1], Gennadiy Ashin [2], Philip Althbach [13], Jamil Salmi [20]. All these authors mentions two main challenges, which faced contemporary university - 1) necessity to be innovative institution and 2) necessity to be global institution. As we saw, at philosophical level the first challenge - innovative one - relates to time, and the second challenge - global one - relates to space. We tried to analyzed these challenges in our previous papers [4], [5].

University mission is the term, which reflects the essence of university activities, its main forms and dimensions at the most abstract level ( Scott, 2006 [21]). Our idea is to analyze the mission of contemporary university and its main components in temporal and spatial frameworks. According to John Scott, the main components of university mission in chronological order are: 1) teaching; 2) nationalization; 3) research and 4) internationalization [21]. My idea is to unite these components in temporal (teaching and research) and spatial (nationalization and internationalization) groups. We could see that inside each of these groups two main components compete with each other - at least, at the level of optimal model for contemporary university. So, we could speak about temporal and spatial intersections of the mission of contemporary university.

The specific feature of current situation at the level of educational policies, especially in elite segment of global educational space, is the establishing in 2003 and quick growth of popularity and influence of international university rankings ( Marope, Wells & Hazelkorn, 2013 [17]). As Ellen Hazelkorn mentioned: “There is a growing obsession with university rankings around world. What started as an academic exercise in the early 20th century in the US became a commercial `information' service for students in the 1980s and the progenitor of a `reputation race' with geo-political implications today” [16, p. 4]. Since international university rankings are important tools of contemporary academic policies, which substantially influence decision-making process at the level of university management, we plan to analyze, which components of university mission are reflected in their main criteria and indicators. In other words, whether teaching or research at temporal intersection and whether nationalization or internationalization at spatial intersection are evaluated more visible and, as a result, provoke university managers to support the certain dimension of activities.

1. University mission at the temporal intersection

In historical perspective the first component of university mission is teaching. So, the first universities were established in late Middle Ages as teaching institutions [9]. What is teaching in temporal perspective? It means a kind of transmission knowledge from the past to the present time [8]. You could teach only knowledge, which is already existed, to spread it among the students. This means certain restriction of your creativity and certain monopoly on truth, which are affiliated with great value of the past in cultures with static symbolical context [6]. The further development of European civilization was connected with the process of gradual devaluation of the past. During Renaissance epoch and especially since the beginning of the New Time searching for new knowledge has became more and more visible in structure of university mission. “We could characterize New Time as an epoch with dynamic symbolic context, because the orientation toward the future is one of the most important principles of this time” (Sergiy Kurbatov [6, p. 10]).

So, research as a kind of transmission of the knowledge from the future into the present time appeared in the structure of university mission. We could conduct research only regarding new knowledge, in process of research we need to collaborate, to be a kind of team with horizontal relations instead of hierarchical vertical relations in case of teaching. We are somebody, who wants to capture new knowledge.

German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was the first who mentioned that both teaching and research are essential components of university mission and they need to be in a certain balance or harmony [11]. “Research has not always been a key function of academic institutions. In fact, the contemporary research university dates back only to the beginning of the 19 th century - specifically to Wilhelm von Humboldt's reformed University of Berlin. Before that, universities were largely devoted to teaching and to preparation of professionals in fields such as law, medicine, and theology” - mentioned Philip Althbach [15, p. 14].This Humboldtian model of university was a kind of classical model in university theory for more than 150 years. In the USA the ideas by Wilhelm von Humboldt established philosophical background of new model - research university, which is currently totally represented in their elite educational segment [8]. Research universities “are elite, complex institutions with multiple academic and societal roles. Research universities produce much of the new information and analyses that not only leads to important advances in technology but also contributes, just as significantly, to better understanding of the human condition through the social sciences and humanities” (Philip Althbach [15, p. 11]). Since the second half of the 20th century research universities at USA occupied top positions at national university system.

In our time the elite segment of university education is under the pressure to be first of all research institutions. It is easy to prove this fact by the indicators of the main university rankings. In Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai ranking) [12] almost all indicators: 1) alumni, winning Nobel Prize and Field Medals (10%), 2) staff, winning Nobel Prize and Field Medals (20%), 3) Higly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories (20%), 4) Papers, published in Nature and Science (20%) and 5) Papers, indexed in Science-Citation Index Expanded and Social Science Citation Index (20%) - are affiliated with research activities of university staff or alumni. Among 13 indicators of THE World University Rankings (ranking Times) the value of research, citation and innovation is 62,5% [23]. In QS World University

Rankings [17] the value of citations per faculty is 20%. Also, research impact is an essential part of academic and employer reputation of university, which has 50% value of the total score in this ranking. At the same time indicators, which directly evaluate teaching, are almost absent in these the most influential rankings. So, we could say that international university ranking enforced elite segment of global educational space to be first of all research institutions. This point currently leads to certain temporal asymmetry in understanding of university mission at temporal intersection.

2. University mission at the spatial intersection

Historically the second component of university mission was nationalization, which was affiliated the active process of establishing nation states in the 16th - 19th centuries [7, p. 48]. “After 1500, the mission of nationalization or service to the government of the nation-state embraced the traditional teaching mission (undergraduate and graduate). Today, most of Europe's and, hence, the world's universities are national institutions that retain the early modern mission of service to the state whether that state is free or totalitarian,” - John Scott mentioned [21, p. 10]. So, university as a national institution became a centre for secure, developing and spreading of different discourses of national culture as far as school for national bureaucracy. This fact is symbolically reflected in the word “national”, which is presented in the titles of majority of Ukrainian universities.

Since the second half of the 20th century the process of globalization was started. The intensive overcoming of different barriers between countries leaded to the creation of the global educational space at the last decades of the 20th century. As Philip Althbach writes: “What is globalization and how does it affect higher education policy and academic institutions? The answer is deceivingly simple and the implications are surprisingly complex. For higher education, globalization implies the broad social, economic, and technological forces that shape the realities of the 21st century. These elements include advanced information technology, new ways of thinking about financing higher education and a concomitant acceptance of market forces and commercialization, unprecedented mobility for students and professors, the global spread of common ideas about science and scholarship, the role of English as the main international language of science and other developments” [13, p. 7]. university philosophical learning

So, the universities faced the challenge of globalization and necessity to be active actors at this new social space and to response on this challenge in the form of internationalization [14]. To some extent, universities returned to their initial statuses before the origin of nation state, when they had international character. According to John Scott: “Historically, the university has stood as a key international organization, from the Middle Ages through today. Illustrating this point, the 19th-century German research universities, as well as 20th-century Britain's Oxford and Cambridge, once imperial universities, drew legions of students from abroad. Similarly, when the American superpower emerged, it attracted international student populations in the millions” [21, p. 30].

The most influential international university rankings almost totally ignore the nationalization as an essential part of university mission in their indicators. At the same time, the evaluation of the level of internationalization plays certain role in some of them. For example, in THE World University Ranking the set of indicators “international outlook” consists of three components: 1) ratio of international to domestic students (2,5%), 2) ratio of international to domestic staff (2,5%) and 3) proportion of joint publication with international co-authors (2,5%) [23]. QS World University Ranking also evaluates the level of internationalization through: 1) international faculty ratio (5%) and 2) international student ratio (5%). So, the majority of international university rankings enforce internationalization of university through its reflection in their indicators. As a result we could also identify certain asymmetry at spatial intersection of university mission.


So, we analyzed university mission at two main intersections: temporal and spatial. At temporal intersection teaching as transmitting knowledge from the past competes with research as transmitting knowledge from the future. At spatial intersection nationalization competes with internationalization. The most influential university ranking currently evaluate mostly such components of university mission as research and internationalization, which lead to temporal and spatial asymmetry in its understanding. This asymmetry reflects the broad problem of modern civilization - its relation to the past and to the future, as far as the relation between national and international dimensions of contemporary human culture.


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Місія сучасного університету крізь призму часу та простору

С.В. Курбатов, канд. фісософ. наук, ст. науковий співробітник Інституту вищої освіти НАПН України

В статті проаналізовано основні компоненти місії сучасного університету крізь призму фундаментальних філософських категорій часу та простору. Ідентифіковане темпоральне та просторове перехрестя університетської місії. На темпоральному перехресті навчання, як трансляція знань з минулого в теперішній час, протистоїть дослідженню, як трансляції знання з майбутнього в теперішній час. На просторовому перехресті націоналізація, як збирання, вивчення та розвиток дискурсів національної культури протистоїть інтернаціоналізації, як процесу поширення глобальних ідей, підходів, технологій. Для доведення темпоральної та просторої асиметрії розуміння місії сучасного університету ми використовуємо основні критерії та індикатори провідних міжнародних університетських рейтингів.

Ключові слова: університетська місія, університетські рейтинги, навчання, дослідження, націоналізація, інтернаціоналізація, темпоральне перехрестя, просторове перехрестя.

Миссия современного университета сквозь призму времени и пространства

С.В. Курбатов

В статье предпринимается попытка проанализировать основные компоненты миссии современного университета сквозь призму фундаментальных философских категорий времени и пространства. Аргументируется, что на временном перекрёстке обучение, как процесс трансляции знаний из прошлого, противостоит исследованию, как трансляции знаний из будущего. На пространственном перекрёстке национализация, как процесс изучения и распространения дискурсов национальной культуры, противостоит интернационализации, как процессу распространения глобальных подходов, идей, технологий. Для доказательства пространственной и временной асимметрии в понимании миссии современного университета мы используем критерии и индикаторы ведущих международных университетских рейтингов.

Ключевые слова: университетская миссия, университетские рейтинги, обучение, исследование, национализация, интернационализация, временной перекрёсток, пространственный перекрёсток.

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