Higher education: an alternative vision?

One question being asked frequently by commentators on the academic world is what vision of higher education, if any, can be discerned in the reforms and initiatives of governments over recent years, and indeed in the actions of the universities themselves. For those interested in such discussions, it may be useful to read the ‘Alternative White Paper’ published by some English academics, In Defence of Public Higher Education.

The authors have written their paper largely as a response to the approach of the British government in reforming the English university system. They see this government approach as being one of introducing a ‘vision of the market’ into higher education, based on an assessment of the ‘private benefit to individuals’ that a university degree brings and on the value it supplies to a ‘knowledge economy’. However, the authors are disturbed by the absence of any commitment to ‘the public value of higher education’.

In the paper the authors present and explain their commitment to public higher education and public universities, and to the social benefits that these offer. They reject the idea of education as a consumer good or as a vehicle mainly for professional training.

The ‘alternative white paper’ is an interesting document. Its perspective on the mission of the public university is worth reading, in part so as to balance the very different approach of the UK government. However, it could be argued that its vision of higher education neglects some of the key social, technological and economic developments of recent years and their impact on universities. Ever since universities ceased to be elite institutions educating mainly the wealthy and privileged, they needed to engage much more with wider national aspirations, including those relating to economic growth and sustainability. The ‘nine propositions’ promoted by the alternative white paper make only a passing (and on the whole negative) reference to the relationship between higher education and the economy. Given the massive taxpayer investment in the system, this could be said to be something of a problem in the paper’s perspective.

On the whole I am inclined to applaud the authors of this paper, not least because they may help to stimulate a more balanced public debate. But it cannot be the last word in this debate; for that it reads too much as if the authors have not appreciated the immense social, demographic and economic changes that have occurred since the Robbins report was published in 1963. Universities today need to be different. But having said that, they certainly do not need to take the form wished upon them by the British government. And I would agree that there should still be a concept of public higher education.

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One Comment on “Higher education: an alternative vision?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    When I came across the ‘Alternative White Paper’ document a few days ago I was so content, finally a coherent, stringently argued *alternative* vision had been put forward to counterbalance the powerful one of the British coalition government and yet I could not help feeling a tinge of sadness as well, or better regret at the time wasted over the years before such a counter vision could contribute to the public debate. The document in question has its flaws of course, and some have been mentioned in the post, however it is overall successful in that it gives voice to a set of core values regarding HE which, I’d like to think, are shared by most academics. Another essential reading for anybody seeking to understand the crisis in British education is the recently published The Assault on Universities A Manifesto for Resistance Edited by Michael Bailey and Des Freedman, Pluto Press. Both texts share a sense of urgency, they are a call to arms in defense of something precious which is about to be lost, belligerant metaphors apart, I think they should also make us reflect on the reasons why,(hence the sense of regret mentioned above) as academics, we have been silent witnesses, if not active accomplices, in the gradual process of erosion of the same core values we are now willing to fight for. The changed economic landscape cannot fully justify years of complacency and acceptance, inquisitive individuals (after all this is what we aspire our students to become) have succumbed to the slumber of indifference and ignored all the warning signs. If anything good can come out of the telluric changes that HE is undergoing I hope that such *goodness* may reside in a rediscovered sense of collegiality, of collective purpose which should in turn make us capable to adapt and face the challenges of contemporary, networked society while preserving the core values we treasure.


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