The higher purpose

May 16, 2003

The goal of university education is to help build a fairer, more just society, says Steven Schwartz.

Twenty-eight years ago, the US educator Harlan Cleveland had this to say about the conflicting views of higher education:

"The outsiders want the students trained for their first job out of university, and the academics inside the system want the student educated for 50 years of self-fulfilment. The trouble is that the students want both. The ancient collision between each student's short-term and long-term goals, between 'training' and 'education', between 'vocational' and 'general', between honing the mind and nourishing the soul, divides the professional educators, divides the outside critics and supporters, and divides the students, too."

We still have no consensus on the purpose of higher education. This should not be surprising. After all, the "collision" of values is "ancient" indeed. Writing in the 16th century, Francis Bacon insisted that knowledge should be practical and "not be a courtesan, for pleasure". More recently, John Cardinal Newman took the opposite view. "Useful knowledge," he said, is a "deal of trash." Consensus on the purposes of higher education remains a long way off.

Today, most religion-based universities can say with certainty why they exist. Their job is to teach students the values that their religion believes to be the basis of good moral character. But the decline in religion and the widespread acceptance of moral relativism, even idiot nihilism, has made it impossible for British secular universities to provide this prescriptive type of education.

Abandoning their moral purposes has led universities to stress their utilitarian nature - get a degree and get a better job. Universities and their representative bodies routinely trumpet their economic impact. We have put so much emphasis on this aspect of our activities that the government now believes that universities exist mainly to bolster the economy.

A sound economy is, of course, a necessary means to achieve our social goals. But first we need an agreed set of social goals. Otherwise, we are a nation of means without ends. If their contribution to the economy provides the means, what are the ends that universities should be striving to achieve? The answer is greater social justice. Universities contribute to a just society in two ways: by producing graduates who improve social life and by promoting social mobility.

Let's begin with graduates who make Britain a better place to live. The presence in society of a corps of competent persons is a powerful force for improvement. Lawyers can advance the cause of formal justice, while doctors promote health. Teachers prepare the next generation, while scientists make discoveries that reverberate throughout the world.

University education can also exert important indirect effects.

Universities offer counselling, art exhibitions, music and drama performances, consultation on public and private issues, medical, scientific and social research and many other public services. Students learn the importance of public service from their university's example.

Through interaction with academics and their own peers, students learn about freedom of expression, tolerance and responsible citizenship.

Graduates transmit these values to other people who did not attend university.

And then there is social mobility. If higher education can be made available to students from diverse backgrounds, it can become an instrument for progress toward egalitarian objectives. Although more women and minority-group members have been to university in recent years, social equity has thus far proved to be an elusive goal. The government is trying to increase the number of people exposed to higher education. Some academics believe that the target will lower standards. Their opponents argue that current university selectivity favours a social elite.

Yet both arguments miss the key point. Widening participation does not just mean more people from diverse backgrounds in university. It is also a way of creating a more inclusive society. Participation in higher education means exposure to liberal social attitudes about the value of individuals.

Students learn to appreciate other cultures and times. They are exposed to art and music and the habit of lifelong learning. And, of course, there are the economic outcomes already mentioned. By providing avenues for social mobility, universities make it possible for students from deprived backgrounds not only to move up to better jobs but also to participate more fully in society.

By encouraging students from all backgrounds to come to university, universities can do more than almost any other institution to improve social mobility and justice. Here then is at least one moral purpose of higher education that we can all sign up to - making Britain a more open, more just and fairer place to live.

Steven Schwartz is vice-chancellor of Brunel University.

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