What is a University?

Rowan Williams’ 2006 lecture in China, What is a University?

Rowan Williams 2012 inaugural address of the Annual CUAC (Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion) lecture series

John Henry Newman The Idea of a University? (1854)


‘Universities were a European invention and mediaeval one at that, reflecting the rapid increase in the number of scholars crowding into the urban schools during the second half of the twelfth century and the concomitant need for organisation and regulation. The new institutional forms, which first rose spontaneously in Salerno, Bologna, Paris and Oxford, were later to be introduced deliberately by popes, emperors and kings. We refer to them simply as “universities” but contemporaries called them “universities of masters and scholars.”

The difference is a revealing one. For us, the word “university” denotes simply the institution of advanced learning which has come everywhere in the world to dominate our systems of higher education. But when medievals first spoke of them they were referring not so much to institutions as to people. They were referring, that is, not to the great schools or studia generalia – where at least one of the advanced professional disciplines (medicine, law, theology) was taught and to which students resorted from all over Europe – but to the guilds (universitates) of masters and students, which, from the last quarter of the twelfth century onwards began to appear at those great schools. Not until the fifteenth century, in fact, did become common for the term universitas to be used as a synonym for the studium, school, or place of study.’

(Francis Oakley, The American College and the Liberal Arts Tradition, New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 17).