On BBC Radio 4 today, Lord Mandelson, discussing soon to be announced proposals for higher education in the UK, said that universities are there “to provide us with both civilisation and competitiveness” (bbc.co.uk). Well I couldn’t have put it better myself, especially the order in which civilisation and competitiveness appear. Nice soundbite and very pleasing to those who believe in education as a good in its own right and not merely an economic instrument.
However, the bite of the soundbite comes in the surrounding discussion. This seems to be all about giving businesses more say in higher education. Giving students information about the different levels of salary they might expect by taking different degree courses and even allocating funds according to the economic productivity of courses. So education primarily serves as an economic good for individuals and society alike. Nothing about the civilisation mentioned in the soundbite!
Now I’m all for developing people’s knowledge and skills. That does lead both to productivity and job satisfaction. We don’t have enough of it. But it’s a career long process and people may have more than one career in their lifetime. It’s not a front loaded process where people begin their working life equipped for everything in the future. It is both before and during – with the during, as contextual learning, being most effective.
But education is, or should be, so much more than learning knowledge and skills. It is about the whole people we become, not just our economic activity. Mandelson, who did benefit from education rather than training, has obviously not learnt from his own experience. Or does he regard it as only for the cultured few? Successive governments have starved non-work related adult education of funds. The Workers Educational Association thrived because ordinary people wanted to learn history, art, science, politics etc etc because they were interested and it gave them personal fulfilment – and contributed to the quality of community life. Thousands of people devote hours of study through the Open University whilst doing fulltime jobs because they believe in the non-economic benefits of doing a degree. And, if you think Mandelson is bad, just see what the Conservative party believe!
However, there is something that unites personal, communal and economic benefit, and civilisation and competitiveness. Something which is, I think, a primary function of higher education – no matter what the subject matter of the course. That is critical thinking – the ability to access, analyse and evaluate evidence, to put together arguments or cases and to be able to deconstruct those put forward by others. It involves self-awareness and the ability to see bigger pictures, including understanding that others may see and interpret life differently. It makes people both confident and open.
Higher education is good for us but not just to make money.