The Ideal Higher Education Model for My Country (Britain)
The ideal higher education model for my country
We universally recognise primary education to be a right. In the UK the state provides
it free of charge for all. Secondary education is likewise treated as a right. While the school-
leaving age gradually increases over time with little debate, and the decision to provide primary
education was taken over a century ago, the state’s role in higher education is highly
controversial. Why is this? I propose that this is mainly due to the subjective nature of the goals
or ends of an education system. Debate about higher education skirts the shadows of this key
issue, rather than taking it as the starting point of a sensible discussion. I will talk about the
implications of this, and also propose that British universities ought to add a social
responsibility aspect to their syllabus.
When we build a ship we first need to know its purpose; is it for people or cargo? How
far must it be able to travel? Having resolved these questions, we then design and construct it.
It would be ludicrous to start out with a trivial question such as the number of windows the
ship should have, and by means of a series of such questions to come out with a ship, and then
use it for whatever purpose it may conceivably serve. And yet this is the approach we take with
higher education systems. One can see this by simply following coverage of universities in the
news, where the majority of stories focus on issues of diversity, student debt interest rates, free
speech on campus etc, each issue being discussed in its own pigeonhole rather than in the
context of how it relates to the purpose of the university.
What is the purpose of the education system? Primary education was introduced to
provide a literate supply of workers for the new factory towns and standing armies of the
Victorian era. Secondary education was universalised as the vote became widespread, to ensure
that voters were adequately informed. One can recognise the original purpose of these systems
by how they are organised and funded. The top down hierarchy of the factory and army still
lingers in these systems.
While the purpose of the primary and secondary systems is obvious, that of the
university is not. Originally the universities provided the church with its clergy, and theology
was the centrepiece of any university. Now university serves many ends; to foster research, to
provide vocational training, to incubate new ideas. The number of ends gives rise to a whole
host of means, many of them conflicting with each other. Should we prioritise access to
education by funding more places, or should we focus on providing an elite education to fewer
students? How should professors divide their efforts between teaching and research?
I would suggest that there are no simple answers to these questions, because there is
not a single purpose of universities from which one can derive the ideal structure of the
university system. I should say that there is no ideal university, rather than no ideal university
system. Because although the university system has many purposes, and so we cannot design
all aspects of the system with one goal in mind, it is possible for a particular university to have
one purpose. Some universities may focus on research; others on teaching. Some emphasise
the arts; others the sciences. I argue then that the ideal system for the UK is one that embraces
diversity in its constituent institutions, and so fulfils its many purposes.
This argument, that an ideal system is the system that best fulfils its purpose and so any
discussion must start with a purpose, suggests that universities ought to specialise and focus on
one thing or another, as said above. The result is a system that as a whole comes nearer to
achieving its many goals (research, teaching, student development etc) than if we were to
attempt to achieve all of these goals at every individual university.
Although I am arguing for heterogeneity in universities, I now make the second
argument that British universities could be improved by having an additional common goal.
This goal is for graduates to understand and embrace their obligations to society, rather than
shutting themselves off from seemingly distant problems.
I believe that there is a clear role for universities to play in educating students for their
civic responsibilities in the 21st century. At the moment, the British university system
encourages over-specialisation so that a physics graduate may know very well the ins and outs
of thermodynamics, but has never questioned or even considered the structure of society and
her role in it. If the aim of her time at university has been only to prepare her for a job at a
research centre, then the university has succeeded. But is that all that we want and ask for from
our universities? Today’s student is tomorrow’s leader and surely that requires a greater burden
than narrow subject expertise alone.
Universities can contribute towards a media literate, politically aware and humane
society by including basic courses on critical thinking and theories of justice. At the moment
the trend in British education is completely in the opposite direction towards early
specialisation because this has the greatest reward for students. University is expensive, and
students want to get opportunities in return for their investment. They do not want to spend
additional time discussing and learning about social issues. While a semester spent mastering
corporate finance has a large personal return, the same amount of time spent learning about
natural law does not. This low private return contrasts with a high external return to society,
from having thousands of public spirited and media savvy young professionals.
I believe that this is crucial to the future, and that the ideal university system must play
its part. Areas with high private returns such as engineering and computing will always attract
students; in thinking about an ideal system we must focus on the areas with low private returns
but massive social benefits. In this I suspect that my argument is rare, as most people now call
for greater emphasis on science in the education system. The key point is that science can tell
us nothing about what to do with our new technologies and old social problems. Political rather
than technological challenges dominate the young century. For democracies to find answers to
questions about economic marginalisation, response to extremism, and other challenges we
need politicians to find it in their self-interest to support serious proposals. Unfortunately, the
most successful tactic politicians can use is to degrade their opponents and pander to special
interests. A politically active and public spirited body of voters could stop this and encourage
politicians to make common sense changes.
In this essay I have made two points to answer the question of an ideal higher education
model. The first is that the universities that make up the system ought to be diverse. This is
because universities, unlike primary and secondary schools, do not have a single purpose and
so we should not force colleges to pursue all their possible goals. A university that aims to
provide world class teaching, research, athletics, student experience, debate, and private sector
links is unlikely to achieve anything above average in each area. The better approach is for
each university to focus on a particular area, so that the system as a whole meets the many
purposes listed above. A caveat to this idea is that a small number of universities with
exceptional resources could and ought to pursue multiple goals; but this is realistically beyond
the reach of many universities. Second, I suggested that British universities ought to teach a
core course of what could be called Civics, so that graduates would be more active publicly.
This is especially important in Britain, where there is no such mandatory course at high school.
I believe that these two changes more than anything would improve the British model. The
most important aspect is to consider the model as a means to an ends, which of course requires
identifying the ends of the system. The current approach puts the cart before the horse.