Cambridge Professor Stefan Collini to open Leiden academic year

Who do universities belong to? This is the question that Professor Stefan Collini will ask at the opening of the academic year in Leiden on 31 August. Collini is Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at the University of Cambridge.

The role of universities

Stefan Collini

Stefan Collini

Collini follows the debate on the political and societal role of universities very critically. He is opposed to the premise currently dominating society about the role of universities being to demonstrate their economic and social usefulness in order to justify receiving public funding.

Who do universities belong to?

In his address in the Pieterskerk Collini will raise the question of who 'owns' the university: its governing body, its academic faculty, its students, the wider society, the Ministry of Education, parents, industry, or maybe the tax payers? ‘The debate on this question is becoming ever more heated. Universities are under pressure. They have to compete with one another to attract more students and the contemporary pressures of expansion and marketisation clash with long-held ideas of the university as a space for open-ended enquiry,’ he comments.

Tensions caused by diverging functions

In his address, Professor Collini will set this debate in both comparative and historical contexts, asking what it is that societies want from their universities, and why it is that these peculiar institutions generate so much debate. He will suggest that the search for wider and deeper understanding, which is at the root of what is valuable about universities, is bound to generate unresolvable tensions with the various other social functions they are asked to fulfil.

Look differently at universities

In 2012 Collini published his controversial book What are Universities For? This work is a call for people to look differently at universities. He states that academic research cannot necessarily immediately be exploited in society. That applies particularly in the humanities, that are under even greater fire than the sciences because the benefits of their research. Science – that in its broad sense includes the arts and humanities – can only truly flourish, in Collini’s opinion, if it is practised in an environment of free and unfettered enquiry.

Reaction from Carel Stolker

Carel Stolker reflects in his book 'Rethinking the Law School' on the governance of universities.

Carel Stolker reflects in his book 'Rethinking the Law School' on the governance of universities.

Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker is delighted that Stefan Collini will be the keynote speaker at the opening of the academic year: ‘Collini is an animated and ingenious man. His work was a great inspiration for my own book about the role of universities in society. At one point I travelled to London specifically to hear him talk at a conference there on ‘Universities under Attack’. This opening of our academic year will contribute to the worldwide debate on the question of whether we are on the right track with our universities – particularly in relation to the many players in society who are involved with our universities.’

Stefan Collini (1947) is Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at the University of Cambridge. He studied at the Universities of Cambridge and Yale. He then worked at the University of Sussex before being given an appointment in Cambridge in 1986. His current research focuses on the cultural role of literary criticism in Great Britain. He also writes articles and opinion pieces about the role of universities in Great Britain.


Collini publishes regularly in The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian.

His most recent three books are:

What Are Universities For?
(Penguin, 2012),

That's Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect (Seagull Press, 2011)

Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford University Press 2008)

(6 July 2015)

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Last Modified: 07-07-2015