Flow of Ideas

What is a University?

Explaining the Rise of Universities in Medieval Europe

Michaela Starkey, A First Year Education Studies student (2008-2009), School of Education, University of Northampton,

9th March 2009

As an undergraduate, I related University very simply to going to a particular place to advance my studies. I told my friends I was ‘going to uni’, defining it as a place. Whenever I thought of universities it was all the famous universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, that came to mind. However, I now realise that the place or campus I attend is just a building; it is what happens in those buildings which defines university for me. This begs the question, can a University be just a place or is it more about the people and what they are achieving?

A dictionary definition of a university is:

“An institution of higher education having authority to award bachelors’ and higher degrees, usually having research facilities. The buildings, members, staff, of campus or a university” (Collins, 1991, p.1097).

This tells us clearly that a university is a collection of many parts that make the whole. The word ‘university’ is derived from the Latin ‘universitas magistorum et scholarium’, which was first used at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Translated this means a university of teachers and scholars (Lawton and Gordon, 2002). This early definition is not concerned with where but is focused more on the people involved.

The philosophers, Hirst and Peters (1970), concur with the idea that a university is an institution rather than just a place, stating that “an institution can be a body of people with a definite purpose” (p.106). The purpose of a University is to educate, therefore undergraduate students will be studying their degree subject but in this same institution research will be taking place, which is another type of education; ‘advancement of knowledge’ (Hirst and Peters, 1970, p.108). This extends my initial thoughts of a university as I had only taken into account undergraduate education and not necessarily research.

Hirst and Peters also talk of universities being institutions which need to be run by an authority; that authority being the academics. They state that in order to relay knowledge at the complex level required at university the lecturers “are assumed to be authorities on those bodies of knowledge and skill” (1970, p.116). However, a university is made up of both academics and students and although the academics are the authority on the knowledge relayed, the students should be involved in the decision making process. They state that: “Ideally, at the level of higher education, there should be a commitment on the part of all, students and staff alike, to the purposes for which an academic community exists” (1970, p.120).

A historical example of a university founded by a group of people is that of Cambridge University. There is a version of history that says “that in about 1209 a group of scholars in dispute with the Oxford University authorities simply left and set up a new establishment in the cathedral city of Cambridge” (Lawton and Gordon, 2002). This is a noteworthy example of the importance of the people and the irrelevance of the physical buildings.

A modern example of a university not related to a specific place is the Open University. The OU was conceived in the 1960’s and was “the world's first successful distance teaching university.” It was based on the belief that “communications technology could bring high quality degree-level learning to people who had not had the opportunity to attend campus universities” (The OU, 2008, online). The OU is therefore an institution that has proved it does not need a specific base to function as a successful university.

To fully understand what a university is we should examine the history of universities. In Medieval Europe the Church was at the top of the hierarchical structure and was the main means of education, the aim being to train priests. Gutek (1972, pg 84) tells us that by the twelfth century priests were being educated in cathedral and monastery schools but there was a need for education of a higher level than these could cater for. Gutek (1972) states that:

“Where the enrolment at certain cathedral schools had grown so large that the existing patterns of organisation were inadequate to accommodate the large number of students could not support them, students and masters organised associations, or universitas” (p.84).

This is where the famous medieval universities grew from. There were a number of contributing factors to the subsequent rise of these universities: the crusades, the revival of commerce and Western contacts with Arabic scholarship (Gutek, 1972).

The crusades were “a series of religion driven military campaigns waged by much of Christian Europe against external and internal opponents. Crusades were fought mainly against Muslins” (Wikipedia, 2008, online). They weakened the feudal systems as the crusaders came into contact with new people, places and ideas, thus widening their horizons. The crusades also revived commercial and city life which introduced a more cosmopolitan and larger intake for the universities. This led to an economic revival which produced a middle class, who were financially stable enough to be able to afford to attend universities (Gutek, 1972). Many of the classical Greek writings that were believed lost were held in the Arab world. The revival of these works led to broadening of intellectual knowledge. Through contact with Arabic scholars the Europeans were introduced to the works of Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy. This new knowledge proved too complex for the cathedral and monastic schools to be able to handle and was therefore another contributing factor in the need for universities (Gutek, 1972).

The emergence of academics such as Abelard, Duns Scotus and Thomas Acqinas followed from the introduction of Arabic learning and they became so famous that students would travel to hear them lecture. This also contributed to the rise of the universities (Gutek, 1972).

In conclusion, universities have risen to fulfil a human need to educate ourselves to a higher level, whether this is at undergraduate, post-graduate or research level. It is easy to relate a university to a specific place and one of the reasons we may choose a university is because of where it is, but this is not the most important factor. It is what happens within the university that is important; it is about what is achieved and by whom.


Collins (1991) The New Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus, Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers.

Gutek, G.L. (1972) A History of the Western Educational Experience, Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press Inc.

Hirst, P.H. and Peters, R.S. (1970) The Logic of Education, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lawton, D., and Gordon, P., (2002) A History of Western Educational Ideas, London: Woburn Press.

The Open University (2008) About the OU, at: http://www.open.ac.uk/about/ou/p2.shtml (accessed 30th November, 2008)

Wikipedia (2008) The Crusades, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crusades (accessed 5th December, 2008).

© Michaela Starkey, 11th May 2009

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