In considering the future of higher education it has become commonplace among contemporary universities to think in terms of visions and mission statements when contemplating their future direction. The positive aspect of vision and mission statements is that they provide a sense of purpose and direction for individual Higher Education Institutions, an identity for marketing purposes, and a device within which to frame milestones and targets as well as key performance indicators against which progress can be measured and strategies written. (Kenney 2005) For more critical voices, visions and mission statements tend to be written at such an abstract level that it is difficult to find what is distinctive about a particular university (Smith and Webster 1997). As Shattock puts it (2007 4) ‘…experience suggests that mission statements, at least in UK universities, have become marketing tools rather than realistic statements of strategic purpose’.

A key aim of the Learning Landscapes project is to provide a clearly understood vocabulary within which the future development of the University can be articulated, in order to better inform the design of the built environment of higher education. Our suggestion is that this language is not based on the abstract and very general level of visions and mission-statement, but on a vernacular that is derived from the custom and tradition of the university itself, but which recognises the contemporary situation. This vernacular can be derived from a much broader discussion about the nature and role of the university. This discussion can be grounded in the intellectual history and tradition of the university through the notion of the Idea of the university. What distinguishes the university as a public institution is precisely the extent to which idealism underpins its real nature. The idea that the university is based on an ideal was a common assumption in the development of thinking about universities (Delanty 2001 39 ).

As Mclean puts it ‘I believe that “ideas’ about the purposes of universities have accumulated and are available to us as resources which may or may not be taken up’ (Mclean 2008 30), even if it is not possible to claim one big idea for the university’ (Mclean 2008 38). The responsibility for reformulating the idea of the university lies with the academic community (Smith and Webster 1997; Mclean 2008 165). Despite the complex history ‘the university, because of its title, cannot easily abandon an ideology, rhetoric at any rate, which emphasizes moral integration and intellectual stimulus’ (Scott 1995 3).

Barnett says in 1990 ‘we have no theoretical framework in which we can talk about higher education educationally. Put simply, we have no modern educational theory of higher education’ (Barnett 4); nor have we any clear idea of what that theory might be based upon.

The idea of the university is written deeply into the built environment of higher education. Edwards calls it not simply a ‘mission’ but a ‘higher mission’, an ‘intellectual mission’ and ‘academic mission’:

‘But universities have a higher mission too, and this gives the design of the building a cutting edge to which few other areas of architecture aspire. It is the fashioning of a dialogue through bricks and mortar, or more likely steel and glass, with intellectual mission in the broadest sense. Universities have almost the unique challenge of relating the built fabric to academic discourse. Put another way, the university environment is part of the learning experience and buildings need to be silent teachers. Whether this is achieved through the design of external spaces or via built form depends on local circumstances, but the principle of academic mission being expressed or explored through the estate of buildings is an important one. And it is this, as much as the external environment, which defines and distinguishes the university’ (Edwards 2000 vii).

For Edwards, the idea of the university is found in the intellectual space that is provided by history and geography, time and space:

‘Universities are not only a dialogue between academic image and the built form in the widest sense, they are also engaged in a discourse with time and space, or, put another way, with history and geography’ (Edwards 2000 5).


‘Intellectual space – the territory of the mind where learning occurs – has necessarily to engage with social space and to a degree with cultural space, that is space fashioned by a scholar’s sense of history and geography.’ (Edwards 2000 7).

In this section of Learning Landscapes, the idea of the university is presented as a ‘convivial tool’ (Illich 1973) for exploring the ‘scholar’s sense of history’. Later in this report we will explore the geographical dimensions of the Learning Landscape project when we look at the ways in which space and spatiality is theorised in the design of teaching and learning environments.