Posted tagged ‘public higher education’

Higher education: an alternative vision?

October 4, 2011

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.

Is the ‘public university’ doomed?

March 30, 2011

In a post on this blog a couple of months ago I looked at the emergence of campaigns to protect the concept of ‘public’ universities. I noted at the time that the term ‘public univertsity’ might not have as clear a meaning as some might think, and that as a society we are not really sure about how we want our higher education to be structured.

Another analysis of this issue has been published in the United States, with the author, Christopher Newfield, arguing that public universities (like much of the public service) are being undermined in a deliberate attack on the principles that lie at the heart of post-War egalitarian values. He suggests that the willingness of university leaders to search for non-public money to replace reduced state funding has helped to subvert these values of higher education.

It is my view that many of today’s proponents of public higher education are, though surely not deliberately, co-conspirators in its threatened demise. For many of these the battle for the public university has focused almost entirely on the idea of public funding as the exclusive or at least dominant revenue base for institutions, with far less emphasis on how that funding should be structured or indeed how much of it there should be. Politicians (or some of them) promise there will be no tuition fees while being completely unable to offer funding that would make the promise a sustainable one. As a result the focus has been on free access; and that is fine, except that the quality of what is being accessed seems to stir up very little interest.

Higher education quality should not be an after-thought. Preserving ‘public’ universities that are in reality unable to compete with other countries and which are starved of resources does not preserve social benefits, and is not egalitarian in effect.

I am firmly in favour of public education, but this needs to be built around its mission and purpose and not, at least primarily, around the source of its financing. It may be lost, not because people disagree with it, but because they are not invited to understand it. The tuition fees argument has become too facile, and as a result genuine public education may be compromised.

The argument for public education should be about open access to a high quality system that engages society and promotes the advancement of knowledge and scholarship. That, I believe, is how the principle should be stated. And those who want to support public higher education should stop asking politicians to sign pledges in relation to one apparent aspect of this while ignoring all the others.


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