The Purpose of Universities

Professor Andy Miah
5 min readFeb 22, 2022

Every year, I teach a first year cohort, who go on to be my personal tutees. We spend 3 years in contact, with the first two years covering fundamental skills in science, from understanding the basics of referencing to the ways in which we critically analyse articles. Amidst these small group sessions, I often find myself speaking more widely on what their university experience can involve, if they go about it in the right way. It’s not really advocating for a specific or unique way of going through university, but to encourage them to seek greater perspective on what is offered to them by virtue of the existence of their institution.

Simple examples include joining a student society — and discovering just how many there are. Student societies are, of course, seen as mechanisms for enriching student life, but they are so much more than this. They are the manifestation of the student body, as a community which dedicates itself to societal improvement — by inventing things like societies, collections of people who share a similar interest, to then organize the coordination and enjoyment of this interest.

The societies range from the sorts of things we think of as entertainment or hobby based pursuits, like skiing, board gaming, or any number of other sports, but they also include groups for students from specific backgrounds, overseas students, who are seeking to connect with people from their home country. There are debating societies, societies who focus on social good, like volunteering for conservation causes. By joining and then organizing such societies, students may take a step towards greater things, like being more socially engaged with humanitarian causes, or simply levelling up their organizational and social skills. The societies are one component of the modern university, which has a longer history as a form of collectively organizing opportunities to learn. Universities began — and remain — communities of learning, where people gather to understand the world more precisely.

Beyond the societies, I also encourage my student to look beyond their degree programmes, to discover what’s happening in other schools — even other buildings. Students go through their entire degrees without setting foot in a building that is used for a different school. Science is separate from the arts, business separate from health and we…

Professor Andy Miah

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman