Posted tagged ‘public universities’

Could there be a new model for the public university?

August 10, 2011

One of the occasional themes of this blog is this question: what is a ‘public university’, and assuming that it is a desirable institution, how can it be secured and preserved? As I have noted previously, much of the public commentary on this question assumes that a ‘public’ university has that status when it is funded largely by public money; though I have also pointed out that, in my view at least, that is an unsatisfactory approach. What a public university does is much more interesting than how it is funded.

Another approach by some commentators is to argue that a ‘public university’ is one that advances the idea of education as a ‘public good’, or sometimes the idea that education should be pursued ‘for its own sake’. I regard the latter suggestion as rather meaningless: if education should only be offered for ‘its own sake’ – in other words, if we can think of no other reason – then it shouldn’t be offered at all. There are thousands of reasons why people should be educated to the highest levels that their intellectual ability can support, and it is quite unnecessary for us to suggest something as vacuous as education ‘for its own sake’.

My fear has been for some time that the arguments advanced in support of public education have become almost banal, just as the actual issues around education have become increasingly complex. Higher education in particular is now recognised as a key requirement for an advanced economy, for a stable society, for high value research that addresses some of society’s most urgent problems, for a tolerant and cultured population, and so forth. These needs sit uncomfortably alongside an educational theory that suggests that educational institutions should steer clear of direct economic and social involvement.

There is an alternative view of the public university, which suggests that education needs to connect with the world and its problems and arrange its teaching and research to ‘focus on global and local outcomes’. The key advocate of this approach has been Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University. Michael Crow has been recognised as one of the most influential US university presidents, and under his strategy to develop ASU as a ‘new American university’ it has shot up the rankings and attracted a lot of attention. Arguing that the American academy is often surprisingly unable or unwilling to influence decision-makers and society more generally to adopt better ways of solving problems, he has suggested that the university’s teaching and research should be ‘use-inspired’.

While there has been a debate on this side of the Atlantic about public universities and universities as a public good, this has often stopped short of suggesting what any of this means in a practical sense (apart from issues of funding). Whether or not we think that Michael Crow’s ‘new American university’ provides a model that could be used here, it should at least inject an interesting dimension into the debate.

In support of the public university?

January 23, 2011

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.