I was kindly asked to speak at the annual Linking London conference recently on the above topic, below is a summary of my thoughts on this timely issue.
Firstly I don’t think it’s a question with easy or simple answers – and that you should be suspicious of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. Overall, I would argue that HE is both a social necessity and an economic imperative, and that we should do our best to promote these two aims at the same time (without strongly prioritising one at the cost of the other, something that many seem to feel is happening a lot currently), and that there is still a lot more that can be done to support both aims together.
Now, if we are currently in a time of major changes (as it feels to me), it’s more important than ever to go back to first principles and ask ourselves what higher education is for, whether it is an economic imperative or a social necessity, or if we can make it both?’
Some would say that the terms of the debate have tilted towards the former, the more instrumental, economic and work-oriented aspects of higher education – that by prioritising STEM subjects over the Arts & Humanities, by trying to increase competition, by moving funding from public to private sources, and making that funding follow the learner – we are prioritising the economic, at the cost of the social.
Even if that is the case, and it has been argued in both directions far more cogently by others, more needs to be done to improve our institutions and graduates as the global economic marketplace heats up – for everything, including higher education. By most measures the top ten universities are either American or British, and top talent from both nations is still in high demand. Yet countries such as China, India, South Korea, Singapore and others, are not far behind, and moving quickly.
On the social side, some argue that higher education is a long-running subsidy for the middle classes, doing little to truly tackle social inequality. Here too, much more can be done by HE. I’ve heard the proposed National Scholarship Programme described as neither national, a scholarship nor a programme.
Others, such as Roger Brown in his book ‘Everything for Sale’ (forthcoming later this year) argue that we actually under-invest in higher education because we don’t recognise the true benefits to both the individual and to wider society. Other than the obvious economic benefits, we don’t appreciate the ‘non-market’ benefits. For individuals this can include better health, a longer life and greater happiness. For wider society it can include improved democracy and human rights, reduced inequality, as well as lower welfare, medical and prison costs. And that doesn’t even capture the cultural outputs generated by higher education.
Walter McMahon estimates in his book ‘Higher Learning, Greater Good’, that the wider social benefits of higher education represent 52% of the total benefits. If that is the case why are we increasing the burden on individuals? And why is it that the majority of our media and politicians only seem to talk about money and higher education, rather some of the wider benefits it generates.
HE will always be a complicated and diverse sector, and one that shouldn’t be forced into an artificial, binary choice between ‘social necessity’ and ‘economic imperative’ when it should be aiming for both.
Please let us know what you think about this question.
Follow @LouisMMCoiffait on Twitter for HE policy and news. All text is solely the opinion of the author.