What is the purpose of higher education?


Picture of the University of Glasgow

Credit / Steve Houldsworth

Now that university fees have increased, has the purpose of higher education changed?

David Rose

Since the increase in tuition fees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, from £3000 to £9250 a year, it has exerted a profound effect on how we think about higher education. More people than ever are now attending university, and in many respects it has become a natural pathway for young people; indeed, several of the higher paying jobs in society now stipulate that a university education is an absolute necessity. However, the increase in tuition fees raises particularly pressing questions about higher education, such as the cost of living; the impact of debt on young people, and the application of market forces to higher education, to name but a few. Hence, it is therefore vital that we start by asking the most fundamental of questions from which all other important questions relating to higher education derive: what exactly should the purpose of higher education be?

This question inevitably produces a plethora of responses, many of which may be true. To begin with, consider what is perhaps the most commonly expressed reason for attending university: employment. This is a perfectly legitimate reason for attending university, however, it is not the only motivation one might have in order to pursue a university education. The less common, and somewhat more frowned upon motivation, is simply being driven by one’s interest. In many ways this scepticism, perhaps understandably, has come alongside the introduction of higher rates of tuition fees. Why would someone pay excessively high tuition fees for a degree that doesn’t provide them with a decent chance of being employed?

A reasonable enough question, however it is entirely possible, indeed likely, that employers will recognise that the graduate has developed numerous skills throughout their degree that will be applicable to the world of employment. A Philosophy degree, for instance, will equip graduates with the ability to present their work through well-developed, clear and precise arguments; skills an employer would undoubtedly value (and I don’t just say this to persuade myself there is hope for my own career prospects). Secondly, the pursuit of education for its intrinsic value is still a hugely important motivation despite tuition fees and, to some extent, this ought to be the foundational principle of a university education. Furthermore, this need not exist in conflict with the desire to obtain a reasonably well-paid job upon graduation, but can coexist perfectly well alongside the motivation to enhance one’s employability prospects through receiving a degree.

The difficulty that comes with tuition fees is that by placing a price tag on an educational institution it changes the nature of higher education. In other words, the value of the degree has shifted and, as a consequence, it becomes more difficult to justify such an expenditure unless there is a high probability of employment at the end of it. Perhaps a response to this particular view is that, by charging high tuition fees, universities are able to fund extensive research that could potentially have significant impact on the wider world. Initially, it might seem like a convincing justification, however, the majority of universities throughout Europe, Scotland included, provide free higher education for its citizens and also manage to carry out important research. It seems a possible way of ensuring that society attaches greater intrinsic value to higher education is that the government may need to take a more active role in funding university education and research.

Moreover, a further problem with tuition fees is that it saddles students with significant debt at such a young age. For example, Glasgow University is an appealing prospect not just because of the range of courses that are on offer here, but because in comparison to many other places it is reasonably good value for money. The cost per year of attending Glasgow (for English and Welsh students) is £6750 which over the four years amounts to the same price (£27,000) as a degree from an English university that only lasts three years. Still, it is a significant sum of money all the same. Middle-class students are likely to leave university with an average of £47,000 worth of debt, and poorer students in the region will leave on average with £57,000. Admittedly, it is perhaps somewhat misleading to characterise the loan as a debt in a conventional sense, as it is obviously quite distinct from credit card debt. A more appropriate description might be a graduate tax and, importantly, graduates are not required to begin paying back the loan until they are earning above £21,000 a year. Nevertheless, it still seems unfair to impose such a burden on a young person simply because they desired an education.

The starkly noticeable raising of tuition fees arguably sets a dangerous precedent for this country as it could potentially find itself on a slippery slope towards the American model of higher education. The cost of higher education in the United States is exorbitant, particularly with regard to Ivy League schools. To take one example, the cost of tuition fees alone at a private college, such as Harvard, for the year 2017/18 is $44,990, a truly astronomical amount of money. Naturally, due to the excessive cost of attending, it limits the opportunities for those from lower-income families. This is problematic as it tacitly endorses the view that education is only for the privileged, for those who are able to afford it. A means of preventing this from occurring is that the government ensures that each individual has the opportunity to receive a higher education that does not have adverse effects on them financially. This could be achieved through a variety of mechanisms, such as regulating how much universities are able to charge for tuition and ensuring that the living costs of students do not reach unsustainable levels.

The answer to the question “what is the purpose of higher education?” is perhaps not one that can be provided in a brief article. But it is a fundamental question that as a society we should be discussing, and in particular considering the implications of the different models of higher education.