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.