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Blog post Part of special issue: What are we educating for?

Problems with a transactional view of higher education

Peter Scott, Professor of Higher Education Studies at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

In the past two or three decades there has been a fundamental shift from seeing higher education in essentially educative terms to seeing it almost exclusively in transactional terms. Young people now go to university for what they can get out of it, although older students may continue to have a more traditional orientation to self-improvement. They are no longer thinking predominantly in terms of personal growth and self-realisation but in terms of more tangible outcomes, notably skills and knowledge that can be traded to produce higher social status and earning power. This, in turn, has led students to weigh the costs and benefits more explicitly.

It is far from clear that this is how most students think about their higher education. But it is very clear how policymakers now assume they think about it, dragging most institutional leaders and managers along in their wake. We have become so immersed in this kind of thinking, certainly at the policy level, that it is difficult to recognise how novel it is – this shift from regarding higher education as a continuation of education, to higher education as the deliberate accumulation of social and economic capital through the acquisition of tradable skills and knowledge. Earlier generations, or even our younger selves, would have struggled to come to terms with this essentially transactional rather than educative view of higher education. Why has this shift taken place?

‘Earlier generations, or even our younger selves, would have struggled to come to terms with the current essentially transactional rather than educative view of higher education.’

There are four main reasons. The first is shrilly ideological: the belief that higher education is just another ‘market’ and this drives policymaking and institutional practice. The second is ideological-cum-structural: the idea that we live in a knowledge society in which ‘knowledge’ (often dangerously unspecified) is now the real engine of growth and wealth creation. The final two are almost entirely structural: (a) the advent of mass higher education which has upset the intellectual balance of the system; and (b) radical changes in the economy, labour market and occupational structure.

Their cumulative effect has led to a fundamental shift in how we think about what we are educating for in higher education – from seeing higher education in essentially educative terms to seeing higher education in heavily transactional terms. Dating this shift is not easy – somewhere between the 1980s and 2010s. But this shift has clearly grown over the past decade. Explaining it isn’t easy either – a mixture of frothy ideology and structural change, I have argued. Assessing its intensity isn’t easy either – but it is clearer and more intense in the policy class and managerial elites than among ordinary students and their parents/partners. Nevertheless, this changed outlook frames much of policy, practice and even research nowadays.

There are three major problems with this transactional approach. First, even if you accept that the only way to see higher education is in transactional terms (which I don’t), you still can’t develop the much-vaunted employability and entrepreneurial skills in a vacuum. You can only do so through intense engagement with bodies of academic (and professional) knowledge. Subjects are the core of even the most transactional higher education. You can’t run undergraduate education through endless role-plays and case studies, as if it is an MBA. Knowledge-free, or even knowledge-lite, skills are an oxymoron.

Second, from the perspective of the individual, what is exciting about higher education (every level of education really) is its potential to expand the intellectual imagination, based on the ‘love of knowledge’ (the ‘philosophy’ of the Greeks). It is only via this route that you can become an autonomous learner – and, therefore, a lifelong learner. So, by insisting on seeing higher education in transactional terms we actually reduce its possibilities.

Third, from a wider social perspective, we face multiple challenges – of so-called ‘populism’, global inequity, ‘fake news’ and ‘anti-science’, and environmental degradation. Education is the best instrument, maybe the only one, to meet and surmount these challenges. Some 150 years ago, the President of the Board of Education, rather patronisingly in our terms, justified the introduction of compulsory education in 1870 by saying it was necessary ‘to educate our masters’. He was referring, of course, to the extension of the franchise. One of the vital connections we miss is between mass higher education and the defence, and advance, of democracy.

By insisting on a transactional view of higher education, we diminish these connections – just as, in our determination to divide our universities into the ‘best’ and the ‘rest’, we deliberately undermine the democratic possibilities of mass higher education.