It might have been easier to identify the purpose of higher education in the early part of the 20th century, when the few students who went to university came from a narrow demographic background and had largely similar educational expectations. The national cost of university provision was then sufficiently small to enable it to avoid significant political scrutiny. Now our systems of mass higher education mean that the needs and aspirations of students are as diverse as our populations, and costs have risen (in July 2023, a House of Commons research briefing estimated the value of outstanding student loans in England alone at £206 billion in 2023, and forecast to grow to £460 billion by the mid-2040s). This means that governments inevitably pay close attention to ensuring higher education properly responds to public demands and expectations, and leads to graduate skills that support the economy and society.
In this context, the question as to what we are educating for in higher education does not allow for simple answers. But at its heart there are two core elements: we are educating for the needs and aspirations of individual students who choose to go to university, and we are educating for the collective public good that flows from graduates whose skills contribute to wider economic, social and cultural outcomes.
The balance between those two objectives will vary depending on the social and political priorities of the day. In England, the Conservative Party’s green and white papers of 2015 and 2016, which laid the groundwork for the legislative framework of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, focused more or less entirely on the individual interests of students, the quality of provision, and taxpayer interests. There is little reference to public good in the two papers, and none in the 2017 Act. By contrast, the ‘Universities Accord’ discussion paper published by the Australian Labour government in February 2023 described its purpose as being to determine how ‘providers can deliver most effectively to achieve national priorities and imperatives, including for skills and industry development, equity of access and opportunity, solving complex societal problems, and powering innovation’. A very different emphasis, though in both models the individual and public co-exist.
The question then becomes who decides what those individual and collective objectives are. In terms of students’ objectives, their courses are primarily determined by academics drawing on their disciplinary experience and expertise, often with strong employer involvement. Courses leading to professional outcomes will be shaped by professional bodies. Then in a demand-led system, the students themselves shape provision by the choices they make: if they choose not to study on a particular course, then that course will close. And all these elements will be blended and moderated by the university itself, according to its own mission and strategy.
‘In an age of mass higher education, knowledge economies and knowledge societies, the answer to what we are educating for – and who determines this – will be as complex and far-reaching as the societies themselves.’
The public good is primarily determined – at least at the level of national politics – by the government of the day. In post-Brexit Britain and with government grappling with severe economic pressures, this means a particular preoccupation with economic outcomes – graduate jobs leading to strong financial returns. But equally, other significant public outcomes include social mobility, and the contributions that universities can make to their local communities.
Although the balance between these different purposes will vary, we cannot expect, and should not be looking for, single, simplistic answers to the question what we are educating for. In an age of mass higher education, knowledge economies and knowledge societies, the answer to what we are educating for – and who determines this – will be as complex and far-reaching as the societies themselves.