The social role of the university is often the subject of fervent debate. Some argue that universities can no longer be ivory towers, where unworldly academics focus on arcane projects. Others argue that universities have yielded too much to industry, thereby turning into vocational schools - citing as evidence the rapid development of many applied faculties such as business administration, law, medicine and engineering.
Nonetheless, both camps recognise that the university has undergone dramatic changes in the past 20 years or so: long gone are the days when only a small proportion of the population attended university, when graduates were virtually guaranteed good jobs, when rankings were not an obsession, and when teaching and research output were not quantified and monitored excessively.
They would probably agree that it is the university's responsibility to provide students with certain basic skills that address the needs of a fast-changing society. The point of contention is what those skills should be. I can think of three which universities ought to be teaching.
Students should possess communication skills fit for exchanging ideas. Many universities now require incoming students to take writing seminars to help them fulfil academic writing requirements. However, students often become so mired in academic writing style and jargon that if you asked them to present their theses in plain language, they would not be able to do so. There are also those who patch up flimsy arguments with academic jargon so as to give their piece the air of scholarship. The university should be a place where students acquire the skills of communicating with different audiences appropriately: an all-round scientist ought to be as good at writing academic articles as they are at writing popular science books.
In an age of increasing division of labour - not only in academia but also in society - it is all too easy to rely on 'expert opinions'. I have met far too many parents who, on learning that I work in an educational psychology department, would immediately ask me for tips on their children's education - as if I were a career planner or there were only one 'good way' to educate the young.
Increasingly, specialised training leaves students narrow minded. Although, as ex-Harvard president Derek Bok remarked in one of his many illuminating books on tertiary education, it is impractical - if not naive - to hope that any university graduate will be able to read and understand all articles published in influential journals such as Science, it remains an achievable target that students have a basic understanding and appreciation of the paradigms of other disciplines.
How can the target be reached? Through reading, of course, and universities are responsible for equipping students with the requisite literacy skills such that, say, a physicist would appreciate and value - not necessarily agree or identify with - an anthropologist's pursuits.
The so-called 'general education programme' at many universities aims to achieve such a goal of broad literacy.
Skills of reflection
Many individuals regard their university days as their 'golden years' when they can lead a relatively carefree lifestyle to explore the meaning of life, to pursue various intellectual interests, to learn more about society, all with relatively few financial burdens and family obligations.
It would not be unfair to say that students first form their world views at university, where they get a chance to mingle with a wide spectrum of individuals from different backgrounds. It is not, and should not be, incumbent on a university to impart any particular world view, for a university must be pluralistic to allow scholarship to prosper. Yet, a university is responsible for providing students with the skills of reflection.
The 'softest' set of skills among the three, it is impossible to teach in any formal way: students acquire the skills - one could even call them an art - of reflection through socialisation processes, such as interacting with fellow students and faculty members, and debating social and intellectual issues,
Universities should advocate rational openness; the views of any member should be equally valued and respected without prejudice so long as they are reasoned and expressed respectfully.
Louis N.Y Lee is dean of students, Wu Yee Sun College, and assistant professor, department of educational psychology at Chinese University