Dare to ask the question: why does the university exist?
The British Government has failed to understand public curiosity about this question to its detriment. One blogger described British Labour's latest vision 'Higher Ambitions–the Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy' thus, 'It's the university as shopping mall.' If greater student choice hasn’t heightened public satisfaction with education, is it because we want to choose like consumers, but be educated as citizens?
There is a sparking debate in Australia’s higher education sector on the meaning of the university. It’s at once daring and necessary. The two kingpins are Steven Schwartz, the Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University and Luke Slattery, Editor of the Higher Education Supplement in The Australian. Allow me to introduce Eleanor Roosevelt and Sally Walker.
In 1930, Roosevelt, the first Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission and draftsperson of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wrote ‘Good Citizenship, the Purpose of Education’ ( http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/documents/articles/goodcitizenship.cfm  ). It answers liberally almost every question plaguing Australia's education policies from curriculum design to character building to teaching quality based on the idea of citizenship.
The idea that education is linked to civic duty or citizenship arises in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The idea of university citizenship is realised through community engagement, which inherits from Aristotle’s civic virtues. In ancient Greece, the word for virtue was ‘arete’. The word for excellence was the same and both were achieved through contemplation followed by action. The modern understanding of citizenship finds expression in human rights.
In 2007, Professor Sally Walker, the Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University signed a Deakin University proclamation of human rights (in full below), whose concluding article is 'to offer equitable access to higher education in recognition of its fundamental role in the development of an active and just citizenry that is empowered to shape the future.’ By this principle, the ethic of university citizenship is expressed as improving access to higher education, particularly for disadvantaged citizens.
In a speech ‘Re-moralising the University’, Steven Schwartz has argued for a university education that furnishes students with the technical skills required for professional life, while introducing them to universal ethical principles which build character ( http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20091009231723191  ). To build character, Professor Schwartz has mandated volunteer work on the undergraduate curriculum. It was not a universally popular decision. But true to his liberal humanist roots and since no argument has countered the rationality of the proposition, he’s advancing Australia fair anyway.
Luke Slattery is pitching to the top and asking Australian vice-chancellors to assume a more meaningful and perhaps more specific role as intellectual community leaders by braving ethics in public discourse. He writes that 'the business of clarifying and articulating the civic and ethical purpose of the university is not only an important institutional goal; it is a way of speaking to students, parents, politicians and industrialists in a large-spirited language that may help to repair the affection deficit disorder' ( http://wl.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,26300455-5015675,00.html  ).
The prescience of the 2007 Deakin Proclamation is unsurprising given the institutional aim to be recognised as Australia's most progressive university. But do human rights have any place in education and if so, how would they change the meaning of the university in the 21st century?
Deakin University Proclamation of its Commitment to The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities
Desiring to promote human rights as the basis of innovative academic culture, progressive university life, and a free and democratic society.
Believing that the full enjoyment of human rights will contribute to the realisation of Deakin University’s core commitment to equity and access for individuals who may not otherwise enjoy the benefits that flow from participation in higher education.
Acknowledging the value of human rights to the growth of a diverse and vibrant university community free from unlawful discrimination.
Affirming freedom of thought, conscience, association and expression, exercised in accord with the values of a free and democratic society, as core principles underpinning relevant and progressive research, teaching and learning.
Recognising the value of education in the elimination of all forms of discrimination, including discrimination against women and girls, and the progression of equality among women and men.
Supporting the principles enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Deakin University endeavours to:
Reject customs, beliefs and behaviour which violate human rights principles and contribute to educational disadvantage and social inequality.
Foster among members of Deakin University and others a culture of respect for human rights and the responsibilities that arise from them.
Continue to offer equitable access to higher education in recognition of its fundamental role in the development of an active and just citizenry that is empowered to shape the future.