Guest Post: What is The Value of Higher Education?

On the 20th of September, The Edinburgh University Anti-Cuts Coalition held a public meeting to discuss the nature of the attacks on International students and how they relate to the ongoing attacks on students more broadly. Below is the text of a speech given by a lecturer at the university, Dr. Tom Watson.

I want to talk about the language employed within the media and mainstream politics about higher education. It is difficult to talk about what universities are, let alone what universities are for, partly because they are numerous and diverse but also because they/we provide education in a very wide set of areas; we do research in a similarly wide set of areas; we provide professional training. I can and will talk about what I reckon universities are for but the initial point is that to include these heterogeneous activities under one model is restricting and the model that is chosen sets the parameters for debate. The particular model that has been chosen weights the policies in a particular direction. 

If we start off with the idea of ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ goods of education, that is, valuing education for the things that it enables people to do (instrumental) and valuing education for things that are good in themselves (intrinsic). Currently, justifications for higher education only operate in the instrumental register, the recurring question is ‘what is that good for?’ And in fact it is narrower than that in that it is limited to instrumental good in solely economic terms. So we find defenders of higher education joining the argument within this frame and it pre-sets the most likely conclusion. This is not inherently an anti-higher education discourse but different disciplines are not working on a level playing field. It is easier for some areas of science to play the benefiting the economy card: pharmaceuticals, medicine, and armaments more than mathematics or theoretical physics. It is easier for business studies or engineering than history of art or divinity. I see, hear and read the efforts of my own field, history, to play the game. This used to be in terms of talking about ‘transferable skills’ but now it is about ‘outreach.’ It used to be that studying history was promoted as providing skills easily translated into entrepreneurship or commerce; now it is that teaching history has an economic payback in terms of ‘heritage’ and ‘tourism’. This is complete bollocks. Downton Abbey or Braveheart do more for heritage or tourism than a familiarity with the medieval crop systems of open fields. And in any case, surely, that argument would only justify teaching British history? Why should we teach the history of Japan? It would just benefit their tourism. The consequence of this part of the discourse is that it creates a presumed proof that some sciences and professional training deserve funding to a greater degree than other disciplines and that presumption comes through in the weighting of the budget – just look at the different buildings at this university: which are the bright, new and shiny buildings?

The second part of the discourse that needs interrogating is the straw-figure of ‘the taxpayer’: why should the taxpayer pay for this? The ‘taxpayer’ has clearly not been to university him or herself which seems odd given how far the percentage of the population with higher or further education experience has risen in the past twenty or thirty years. This ‘taxpayer’ also only ever evaluates things by their economic impact, presumably never having been sick, never having read a history book, gone to a museum or watched a movie. This mythical taxpayer plainly does not perceive any intrinsic good in education, only using the instrumental good of money. I am a taxpayer and I am not this ‘taxpayer’: I want to pay tax in order to fund a welfare state, a national health service and a public sector that concentrates on delivery rather than profit.

The last part of the discourse is the individual. Not only is the criterion for approval limited to economic growth, it is concentrated on the individual student. Go to university and get a well-paid job. Where there are jobs there can be some truth in that but also huge variety, partly reflective of what gets valued. You can go to university and become a lawyer or a financial consultant and make a few bob; you can go to university and become a social worker or an environmental activist and make a less impressive income. But that’s not what I want to focus on right now. The discourse talks about clients or, even worse, ‘consumers.’ The benefits of higher education on the individual and on the country are seen as economic. The rhetoric of a market in education as it is funded, designed and received, limits the perception of both the intrinsic but also the instrumental good of education. I want the discourse to be changed in two ways. I want it to think about, to talk about citizenship and society. To my mind, a large part of the instrumental good of higher education is that it enables people to critically engage, to operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion, that is, not just to lap up the ‘we’re all in this together’, the ‘benefit scroungers’ and the ‘worker’s rights will cripple the entrepreneurs’ rhetoric but to test these assertions. A fully-fledged democracy is one in which politicians and newspapers are not taken on trust, are held to be answerable to their electorate and their purchasers. Higher education can contribute to creating a society where it is harder to pull the wool over our eyes, where it is harder for the wealthy to use a recession to line their pockets while punishing the poor in terms of taxation and assaulting the welfare state. When we get to add the functioning of citizenry as a means of keeping politicians on their toes, if need be calling them to account and measuring the success of a society by the way it treats the poor and vulnerable, when we add those criteria to our assessment of evaluating higher education, we will have a more level playing field and a better set of budgetary priorities. We need to work against accepting the myth of free market economy as a solution and re-establish the idea of education as a source of social good. We need to create a discourse that values education as a contribution to an engaged and active citizenship.

– Tom Webster

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