Reflections on ‘What are we educating for in Higher Education’

Paul Ashwin and Charles Clarke

Society for Research into Higher Education, 23rd February 2023

Panellists: Baroness Tessa Blackstone, Professor Nicola Dandridge and Professor Peter Scott.

Sun setting over the sea with sunrays seen through clouds.

Photograph: Image by Timo Volz on Unsplash

NB: These notes are based on Paul and Charles’s reflections on this seminar and should not be taken as stating the views of the three panellists or those who attended the seminar. Rather they are a particular interpretation of the engaging discussions that took place during the seminar.

In this seminar, we examined the question of what we are educating for in higher education.

Baroness Blackstone emphasised the importance of taking account of students’ economic needs particularly given the current state of the economy. She argued that it was important to see higher education as connected to the other stages of education and highlighted the huge changes that have taken place in higher education since the 1963 Robbins Report, with large increases in the proportion of young people gaining access to higher education and in the diversity of students in terms of race and gender. She argued that UK higher education had been generously funded per student compared to other HE systems but there had been an over-focus on full time students who had recently left school. She felt a comprehensive university system would be preferable to the current separation of students according to their previous academic performance and suggested that universities could develop stronger relationships with further education colleges as well as playing a greater role in debates about the 16-19 curriculum. She argued that universities jealously guard their autonomy in shaping the curriculum and controlling their admissions. Whilst this autonomy was important, higher education needed to be more open to discussing admissions and curriculum with policy makers. In conclusion, Baroness Blackstone argued she could see a value in more general degrees that developed students’ analytical abilities, tolerance and curiosity.

Peter Scott argued that, 20 years ago, what are we educating for in higher education would have just been assumed. It was simply a higher form of education. He saw the asking of this question as reflecting a fundamental shift to seeing higher education in transactional terms, measured in relation to its costs and benefits. Whilst he was confident that policy makers thought students saw higher education in these terms, he was far less confident that students understood it in this way. The change to seeing higher education in transactional terms was related to four changes in society. The positioning of higher education as a market; the shift to seeing knowledge as the real engine of the economy; the advent of mass higher education; and radical changes in the economy and labour market. He argued that one of the challenges of the transactional approach to higher education is that it promotes a view that only some jobs are suitable for graduates. If graduates do not get such a job then, then one of three things is wrongly assumed to have occurred: the students should never have been given access to higher education; they were careless consumers and took the wrong course; or they had been entirely failed by their higher education institution. He concluded by arguing that only by expanding the intellectual imagination of our students can we support them to be autonomous lifelong learners who can contribute to flourishing democracies.

Nicola Dandridge picked up on and agreed with Peter Scott’s suggestion that an attitude to higher education institutions of ‘the best and the rest’ was incredibly unhelpful. She highlighted the many different purposes that are served by higher education. Within these wide range of purposes, she focused on two core elements of what we are educating for: educating for the individual students and educating for the public good. The balance between these elements vary overtime partly in line with the political priorities of policy makers. An example of a different balance between the needs of the individual and the public good is provided by Appendix 5 of the Robbins reports which examines higher education in other countries. It described the Soviet system of higher education in which the education of individual students was completely dominated by the needs of the nation. She concluded by arguing that academics, students and the state all had key roles in shaping what were are educating for in higher education. Academics have a key role in shaping the curriculum, it is important that students have choice in what and how they study and the state has a legitimate interest in what students are studying and how that will contribute to the individual and public good.

The subsequent discussions of those participating in the seminar highlighted the importance of having a wide range of higher education institutions and seeing these institutions as part of an overall system of higher education. A number of participants raised the importance of a commitment to lifelong learning and it was argued that a change was needed so that this importance was reflected in the funding system. Institutional autonomy was considered to be important but rather than using this autonomy as a way of closing down the questions of policy makers and the public, it was suggested that this autonomy gave higher education institutions a responsibility to be clear with their students, communities and policy makers about why they designed education in the way that they did. It was recognised that part of the reason for closing down such conversations was a fear that these conversations were not always conducted in ‘good faith’. As with the first seminar in the series, the importance of having more open and flexible systems of higher education that people could engage with at different points in their lives was strongly highlighted.

We gratefully acknowledge the funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, FASS Research Fund and Lancaster University for this seminar series. We also acknowledge the support of the British Educational Research Association and the hosting of the series by the Society for Research into Higher Education.