"Higher Education, and the purpose of education", by Jens Vraa-Jensen

Seen through a neoliberal political framework, education’s main purpose is to be an instrument for economic development, increased productivity of workers and creation of new jobs. In such a context, education is not one of the key factors for social and human development. Any debate on education must always clarify how education (and the mission of education) are perceived. Naturally, a common understanding of the subject in question must be the starting point for any exchange of views and development of future policies.

Education as an instrument for economic development

For those who consider education as an instrument for economic development, immediate employability is one of the most important elements that the curricula and the education system should consider. In this view, the main focus should be to prepare the students/clients/customers for the demands of the labour market and thus, there will be less or no interest in developing students as human beings with critical sense and well-developed intellectual capacity.

The focus is on building the individual for the current needs and demands of the labour market.  Tuition fees are the most natural and coherent way of funding institutions (it should be noted that in such an approach, an education “system” is not needed) and students are mainly seen as consumers of higher education services. Accordingly, there is no interest from the society in creating and maintaining a coherent system of higher education institutions, because the focus is not on the societal development and on ensuring a well-educated population.

Here single institutions must compete against each other on the same terms and conditions as any firms do in any other area of the market economy. In other words, universities are considered as corporations, who act on the (global) education market as any other corporation will act in the capitalist economy.

According to this model, the purposes of accreditation are mainly for marketing purposes and, to a lesser extent, for consumer protection. A central set of guidelines and standards for the assessment/accreditation can be established to limit the risk of fake accreditation agencies, but as it is assumed that the institutions soon won’t be part of a national education system anymore, it is not necessary to build a national – or an international – quality assurance system.

Consequently, the main goal of institutions is to “sell their products”, and in many cases it can turn out to be a disadvantage to maintain a direct connection between teaching and research. The labour market will still require that graduates have been taught the latest knowledge and methods of research, however it is no longer an embedded part of education to develop more intellectual capacity than that required by the market. Accordingly, there is no need to focus on research that can inform and support teaching if it is not strictly related to the demands of the labour market.

In such a market driven approach, applied research will be considered of higher value than basic/blue sky research. Research focussed on innovation and applying existing knowledge to new products will, in general, not be of much value for the development of teaching and pedagogical methodology. This calls into question the traditional link between research and teaching in universities.

The function of universities is most comparable to an advanced service provider/consultant to serve the immediate interests of private enterprises and governments. Protection of academic freedom is left to the good will of the universities. Institutional autonomy will follow from the status as a kind of (semi)private enterprise and the rationale is basically to quickly adjust activities to the needs of the market Collegial governance is abolished and replaced by a managerial system with appointed “professional” managers at all levels in the universities.

Finally, the dominant way to maximise profits in teaching is by developing standardised teaching materials, standardised curricula and standardised tests. Any idea of student-centred learning contradicts the “one-size-fits-all" thinking which is the basis for reducing costs of education to the lowest possible level.

Education as a social factor for developing a society

In contradiction to the view presented above, the developmental concept and view of the purpose of education is based on the following 4 pillars in a non-prioritised order, as defined by the Council of Europe:

·       Enhance the general knowledge-base of the society;

·       Develop the student’s personal capacities;

·       Teach students to become active citizens in modern democracies;

·       Improve employability.

This is almost the opposite of the view presented above. There is a basic respect of the principle that education at all levels is a human right and should be available to all based on merit and intellectual capacity and not only on economic capacity. Education is a vital element in social mobility and the best possible function of society.

It is important to establish and maintain a coherent education system with a clear connection between one level and the next, with a national definition and system of quality assurance, and with a focus on the benefits for society rather than simply individual outcomes.  In other words, it must be based on public responsibility for both the system  and its funding.  

The unique role and mission of the institutions is to be a critical voice of society for the purpose of continuously developing deeper understanding of the world.  In order to be able to fulfil this mission, there is an embedded need for an unambiguous and strong protection of academic freedom, institutional autonomy (in part, for the purpose of being able to criticise without fear of repercussions) and collegial governance structures with elected academic leadership.

The mission of being the critical voice of society and the obligation to search for new and deeper understanding/the truth, will require a strong protection against any interference  from political or economic interests. If such a protection is lacking, the mission of education  is threatened.

The aim of  research in universities in such a system, is to develop the understanding of unknown phenomena. It is an investment in the future with no expectations of immediate economic outcome or profits. The connection between teaching and research is an important parameter of the quality of education, as it will ensure that higher education is based on the newest knowledge and that the scientific methodology and way of thinking is the basis for the learning activities.

Finally, it is important to develop the intellectual capacity of future generations – including, but not limited to, critical thinking and creativity. Education in this perspective must also include knowledge and understanding of others, including  cultures and languages.

In order to be able to fulfil the goals and the individual development of all enrolled students, the teaching paradigm must be a student-centred approach, where the different backgrounds and expectations of a more and more diverse student-population are met in the best possible way.

Thus, a standardised one-size-only thinking is unfit, and protection of academic freedom is essential to allow teaching staff to change teaching methodology, pedagogy, didactics and the content/curriculum in order  to  fit best to create the highest level of learning and understanding to the given group of students.

Conclusion

From the global debate about education, only very, very few people seem to disagree that education is an important and vital factor for any development in the world. Just try to compare the potential development of a society where all inhabitants are illiterates with one where this isn’t the case.

Nevertheless, any discussion about education must include what is considered to be the purpose of education (and research). This definition and political stances behind it are very important for any discussion and decision on future developments in the education sector and global policies on sustainable development and welfare.


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Jens Vraa-Jensen

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