News from the UK of a proposal to allow new degree-granting start-up universities to compete against existing institutions had me thinking: what would you need to start a new university from scratch?

Well, you would want a decent (or more likely indecent) amount of money; some buildings – perhaps a faux Gothic-Palladian pile with attached dreaming spires, or conversely an eco-sustainable neo-futuristic “space”; leading research academics; a fearless, visionary leader; sundry management types; all kinds of technology and its attendant experts; and a PR/Marketing Office complete with cliché playbook – “innovative, cutting-edge, future-focused etc” – and, and … what else?

Oh yes – students! Without which, what would be the point? All that energetic institutional sound and fury would signify nothing.

In all the political and social debate surrounding universities and their role in the economy and innovation process it is easy to forget that education is their prime purpose.

The term “student-centricity” is heard often but familiarity should not breed contempt. Students are the most important people on (and increasingly off) campus and ought to be the centre around which the rest of the process revolves. They are the future, and so every effort must be made to ensure their present is the best it can be.

No university sets out to neglect its cohort; indeed, perhaps more than ever, student needs are catered to efficiently and effectively. But there is no room for complacency, especially as it is well recognised that society is in a phase of enormous transition the outcome of which will have to be navigated by future generations.

The importance of the student experience was brought into sharp focus this week by one of the world’s most experienced and wise educators, Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the pioneering private University of Buckingham and a leading historian, educationalist, commentator and political author.

In a paper for the Social Market Foundation he laid out his concerns regarding the quality of teaching within universities. He made this point:

Universities should be every bit as much about the interests of the student as the academics. Yet it is abundantly clear in too many universities today that the leadership and the academics care far more about their research than about the quality of the learning experience of their students. This is the elephant in the room.”

Seldon says that over the next 10-15 years universities will face fundamental challenges from digitalisation, meaning they will need to adapt not only to online lectures and seminars, tutoring, and assessments, but also to the changed employment and societal requirements in the digital world.

What students require from academics in this new world is to be actively engaged in active learning and stimulating exchanges. This will require a rethinking about the whole way that we go about higher education.”

He speculates that a majority of students do not care primarily about academics’ cutting-edge research but rather what they want is at best excellent, and at worst competent, teaching and structuring of their course material.

Seldon concludes by focusing on what he terms “the moral responsibility” of university leaders for ensuring the student experience is not diminished.

We will never know the numbers who have left university with their minds and imaginations underdeveloped because of lacklustre and uninspiring teaching. The moral responsibility for the university in teaching to the very best of its ability is profound and it goes far beyond the turning out of young people prepared for the job market.”

The Seldon paper can be read in full here. Is he right, or is he overstating the issue?