Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 January 2021
Universities have always been a paradox. Publicly perceived, with their own connivance, as separate and selfgoverned entities, hallowed ground where students test their boundaries and learn how and why to engage with the world, they are at the same time embedded in the world, with their metaphorical snouts poking deep into the public purse, their functions watched over and promoted by an array of governing and funding institutions, philanthropic individuals, and highly engaged corporations. Of no other modern institution can it be said so forcefully that the public is the personal. Alumni think fondly of their time at the university, ossifying it through pastel lenses into the nostalgic glory of their youth, the last stop on their trundle through the halcyon world of childhood and growth towards adulthood, the last call before mortgages and the misery of loans, the daily grind, and lunches in paper bags. Governments take a more curatorial role, sometimes rather proprietary, sometimes not, overseeing the accomplishments of this entity, this behemoth, but without venturing deep into its portals, braving the maw that is the apparent complexity of a university's governance structure. Fearing to awaken the beast that cries out (and occasionally screeches) for university autonomy, they sidle up to the issues of accessibility and accountability, hoping not to nudge the beast too much, hoping not to startle it from its usual somnolence. Parents demand access in strident terms, and applicability in stentorian ones, as their marvellous offspring bring stellar accomplishments in the door, but encounter difficult classroom and examination experiences once inside the hallowed halls of an institution that assesses their progeny differently and challenges their independence and social skills in a plethora of ways. Students find themselves navigating personal, social, and intellectual minefields with only their native wit and common sense to help (and nowadays the odd wellness seminar). The whole paraphernalia of a university education can seem overwhelming, a difficult and uncertain prospect, with little promise of utility in the ordinary and mercantile sense of acquiring a job at the end of the process of attending a university and extracting a degree.