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June 30, 2011

"No single purpose for HE can be defined. Yet this is precisely why I am optimistic. Far from a lack of purpose, we should celebrate an abundance of purposes."

So starts Martin Hughes' guest editor blog for WonkHE: "Why contradiction is (and always will be) higher education's greatest strength" (

At a time when the value of university education is being debated widely and urgently (fuelled in the UK by the controversy over the raising of tuition fees), Hughes asserts that the sector's unpredictability - its range of ideas, experiences and perspectives - is to be championed, not viewed negatively.

"Higher education is full of contradiction," he writes. "Every institution is rife with healthy argument. The pursuit of learning often conflicts with the pursuit of a better career. In short, one person's potion is another's poison."

Rather than lamenting a lack of purpose in higher education, we should celebrate a multitude of purposes, believes Hughes, who is an advocate for higher education through his own blog (The University Blog).

Although such a variety of conflicting aims means that it is impossible for all institutions to "face the same direction", they should nevertheless seek to work as a "collective" - such contradiction, Hughes reiterates, can be a "lifeline" for the sector as it grapples with the uncertainties ahead.

In moving forward, there is no place for a "broad-brush approach to policy": academics and institutions must develop a more nuanced understanding of the manifold ways in which people engage with a sector that has been given "too many roles".

Higher education should be a social good, Hughes continues, but for this to happen everyone within it must focus on collective achievements rather than internal competition.

As to the question of whether institutions should diversify or specialise in order to thrive under the government's new funding system, Hughes offers a characteristically contradictory answer. They should, he says, do both. For him, the key question is how to best provide a plethora of services. "The student landscape is changing and the future of funding is unlikely to be clear any time soon," he writes. "It is crucial to open doors to an ever-diverse (sic) population and to provide accordingly. The trouble is making sense of how to 'provide accordingly'."

Hughes advises policymakers to slow down and not rush into "inappropriate action" - this period of tumultuous change requires "agility, not a mad dash".

As universities adapt to the new environment, Hughes hopes that the status of institutions will come to be based on the benefit they bring to society and not on "misleading hierarchies".

Certainly, prospective students will consider higher education with ever more personal goals in mind. They will weigh up more than just the price of tuition - and thus the improving of career prospects will form just one type of engagement with the sector.

"If we can successfully embrace contradiction and use it to our advantage," Hughes concludes, "I am confident that the future will be worlds apart, and yet remain both startlingly and reassuringly familiar."

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