Leader: Public mission is lost in hill of beans

April 2, 2004

Once more economic arguments threaten to dominate the debate over the expansion of universities. On the eve of a second crucial Commons vote on the government's plans for top-up fees, much was made this week about new research indicating that there will not be enough graduate jobs for students in the future "to repay their investment in higher education". The government has increasingly turned to market-force arguments to justify its higher education policies. More graduates are required, ministers argue, to fill the highly skilled jobs needed to compete in a modern global knowledge economy, while deferred and variable fees for graduates assume that students are 18-year-old consumers who will pay for their degrees once the financial benefits of university are realised.

Higher education is not the only sector to be overtaken by the drive towards consumerism. Indeed, the entire reforms for the public sector under the Labour government aim to replicate the efficiencies and service levels of the commercial world. But there have been two timely wake-up calls during the past week warning that, however justified the government's attempt to use the market to generate extra monies for the sector, the relentless rhetoric of the marketplace threatens to undermine a key defining role of universities.

Delivering the second annual Higher Education Policy Institute lecture last week, Robert Reich, a professor at Brandeis University in the US and a labour secretary in President Clinton's administration, complained that the "public mission" of US universities had all but been eroded. According to Reich, people in the US used to talk about higher education as a source of public benefit for the whole country. Now it is seen purely in terms of the benefit to the individual.

A similar theme emerged this week in a speech by Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. He argued that universities are institutions that stand between the state and the individual - "repositories of culture, learning and civilising values". He also pointed out that graduates cost the community less and are more likely to contribute to voluntary and community activity.

These points may not pass muster with the Treasury's bean counters. But we should not forget the civilising influence of the higher education sector - particularly in a society where monetary values increasingly supersede all others.

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