In support of the public university?

If one wants to find something good in all the turmoil and resourcing crises afflicting higher education in several countries, it could be that all this has stimulated debate about the nature of higher education and of the principles that give it meaning and significance. Over the past year or two there has been an avalanche of comment and analysis, and some very interesting work has been published. As is well known, we have also had a number of government-sponsored investigations into higher education, such as the Browne review in England or the Hunt report in Ireland. For the record, probably better than either of them is the Bradley report in Australia, but I shall come back to that in another post.

One potentially interesting contribution to the debate has been the UK Campaign for the Public University, which in essence consists of a website with contributions by supporters and a list of those who have subscribed. The website explains that the campaign seeks to ‘defend and promote the idea of the university as a public good’. The problem with the campaign name and the explanation just quoted is that it may be quite hard to pin down what it means. Generally speaking, the term ‘public university’ is used to denote those institutions which are largely funded by the taxpayer. This definition may be hard to sustain, as for example the US ‘public universities’ are deriving less and less of their income from public funding, though often the degree of state regulation has increased.

In fact, reading the comments and articles published on the Campaign’s website, what strikes me is that what unites those who are contributing is more of a sense of what they do not like – and the term ‘market’ tends to pop up a lot – rather than a vision for ‘public’ higher education as an ideal. Is a ‘public university’ defined by its ownership? Or by its structure? Or by its relationship with government? Or by its funding and resourcing? Or by its pedagogy and curriculum? Or all or none of these? The obsession with markets (whether pro- or anti-) serves very little purpose; markets are just distribution mechanisms, and higher education has always been a market, just a different one – in that a limited number of places had to be distributed amongst a larger number of applicants.

It is possible that there never was a consensus as to how higher education should work, but that we were able to get by because it didn’t really matter when there were fewer financial or demographic pressures. But now it matters. The problem is, we don’t have a sense of what we want higher education to be in terms of scholarship and pedagogy, so we keep focusing on structure and funding, thereby really putting the cart before the horse. Reading the materials put out by the Campaign for the Public University I can get no sense of what constitutes their theory of public education. If we are so vague ourselves, we are going to find it very hard to persuade anyone else.

My own view of ‘public’ higher education (for what it is worth) is that it should be open to all, accessible to all and committed to an educational mission that serves society’s social, cultural and economic needs. I believe it should be diverse, and I believe it should be autonomous. I believe it should seek and disseminate knowledge, and that its discoveries should be translated to as wide a use as possible, both commercially and socially.

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3 Comments on “In support of the public university?”

  1. Fred Logue Says:

    I think this link is a great way of looking at universities.

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/04/the-coming-meltdown-in-higher-education-as-seen-by-a-marketer.html

    Instead of public universities we should be talking about how the public can receive the range of knowledge and skills necessary for their lives. There is an implicit assumption in your analysis that a university should provide that role.

    I don’t accept that assumption.

    In the world today there are so many other ways to become educated so maybe, just maybe the cost benefit equation for universities will be such that there are better and cheaper ways to become “educated” (e.g. http://www.khanacademy.org/)

    This is the kind of thinking that is needed.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    There are two rather problematic passages in the above post, the 1st: ‘what strikes me that what is uniting those who are contributing is more of a sense of what they do not like – and the term ‘market’ tends to pop up a lot – rather than a vision for ‘public’ higher education as an ideal.’
    I trust that you have read the Manifesto page in the Public University web site, to my mind it does put forward a public higher education ideal, particularly in its discussion of Dewey and his defence of publicness and social life. Granted, there is scope for a better articulation of the ‘alternative’, however all the questions you rightly pose have not been fully answered by the Browne report either, so the burden of further clarification regards all.
    Secondly, you write: ‘The obsession with markets (whether pro- or anti-) serves very little purpose; markets are just distribution mechanisms, and higher education has always been a market, just a different one – in that a limited number of places had to be distributed amongst a larger number of applicants.’
    Once again, granted radicalizing does not help, still even if we lived in a post-political, post-ideological society as some social scientists have argued, in a society where a comedian is more combative in his interrogation of the higher education minister than some academics (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwEaboVtrH8&has_verified=1)
    to say that ‘markets are just distribution mechanisms’, thus depriving them of any ideological bearing is too much to swallow, especially on a Sunday morning!


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