Over the centuries, there have been many different ways of understanding what is expected of an institution in which young adults are educated. I use this clumsy form of words because the word ‘university’, although it has been applied to most or all of these institutions, is a European term with a special history, and it does no harm to be aware of the non-European experience as well, even though much of what follows will be based on the more familiar European history. Thus it is signifi cant to recognise that an imperial academy for ‘the sons of the nation’ was established in China over a century before the Christian era and an imperial medical college in the fi fth Christian century. A good deal of what I have to say about the European experience will have such echoes in non-European contexts. But whatever the precise terminology used, the focus of this discussion will be institutions that educate beyond a certain basic level, that deal with people in their late teens and twenties for the most part, and that have close relationships, but not complete identity, with the processes of training for certain kinds of public life.