Subjects and benefits

August 11, 2000

Madsen Pirie wants to highlight "individual" benefit of a university education while also recognising "social" benefit ("Institutions will finally enjoy era of autonomy", THES, August 4).

But both can be further split. The individual benefit can be experienced as a direct positional good in seeking a career and also as self-development not directly tied to career success. Social benefit can be seen in terms of the development of human resources and national economic growth (the favourite benefit in political discourse) or it can be regarded as manifest in a less defined way as part of general democratic advancement and social progress.

All four are, of course, inter-related and can be found in different combinations.

More to the point, however, the "benefit profile" of the different subject areas will differ considerably - medicine from English literature, say, or modern languages from politics. It is a sensitive matter to raise such differences in a climate of anxiety about associated "costs" but we cannot further the debate about the future of higher education unless we engage with what universities do at this more benefit-specific level.

John Corner Professor of politics and communication studies, University of Liverpool

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