What Is The Purpose Of Higher Education?

What-Is-The-Purpose-Of-Higher-Education

Universities have been around for centuries, and have long been recognized with prestige and a sense of class.

They form the institution that is responsible for delivering higher education. And many young people see attending one as the logical step to take after graduating from high school.

Up until recently, the purpose of higher education was almost never questioned. It was always seen as the only pathway towards professional employment, as well as being the best quality education that money could buy.

However, in recent years, different attitudes towards universities and the quality of the education that they deliver have emerged. Several factors have influenced this, and it has led to the waters becoming a little cloudy.

Technological developments such as e-learning platforms, wider acceptance of more holistic learning experiences, and a job market that now values practical skills as well as theoretical knowledge are some of the main factors.

They have fragmented what was once a concrete agreement on the purpose of higher education, forcing us to reconsider why we still value it.

So in this article, we will explore all of these points. We will see how they have influenced university, and give you an overview of the purpose of higher education in today’s society.

Purpose Of Higher Education

The purpose of higher education is multifaceted, and so cannot be answered in a single point. But, by looking at its core objectives, and the founding principles of which universities emerged, we can get an idea.

Higher Education Objectives

Traditionally, the purpose of higher education revolved around a passion of learning, and bettering oneself through knowledge.

And although not the only ones, the following objectives were the main ways in which this was achieved.

To Further Knowledge And Understanding

Arguably the most important aspect of the purpose of higher education is to further our understanding. Knowledge has always been seen as a powerful tool, and fundamental to human progress.

But this does not mean that the purpose of higher education is to simply gain more knowledge. Knowing facts and figures, and knowing information about a certain topic can be beneficial.

But is also the way in which you think about things, and how you process information that is more important.

And so by teaching students about topics, but also how to think about these topics, they become much more critical thinkers.

So this aspect of the purpose of higher education comes through developing a critical mindset, and the ability to ask questions.

To Create Democratic Citizens

This sounds very abstract, but is actually quite straight-forward.

Higher education prides itself, and always has, on being an institution which is unbiased and uninfluenced by specific schools of thought. And for generations it has remained a secular and open minded environment, which promotes students to think for themselves.

By doing this, a higher education reflects the wider ideas of a democratic society, which values opportunity and objectiveness.

And so this fundamental aspect of the purpose of higher education helps students to develop a democratic outlook on life.

Intellectual Work

The final main aspect of the purpose of higher education is to prepare students for employment within work considered to be intellectual. This includes fields such as law, medicine, and mathematics.

These fields require lots of theoretical knowledge. And an institution of learning allows students to be immersed in them. Several years of study within this environment has long been seen as the optimum way of preparing for such work, giving students the best chance of success.

Today’s Purpose

It would be hard to argue that the objectives that we talked about before are no longer at the center of the purpose of higher education. After all, they are abstract concepts that do not easily change.

However, in recent years there has clearly been a shift in what students believe to be the purpose of higher education. And so it can be argued that although these core values are still there, they are no longer perceived to be the purpose.

But what do today’s students actually think

What Do Students Say

In 2018 academics from the London School of Economics (LSE) asked university students what they believed the purpose of higher education to be.

Career

Most of the students involved in the study said that higher education serves career progression. Many of them believed that without a degree, the chance of finding a well paid job significantly decreased.

And so instead of seeing the purpose of university as an investment of time, energy, and money for better opportunity, these students see it as security against having to accept low paid work.

In a sense, this rings true to the core purpose of preparation for intellectual work.

However, it completely disregards the element of intellectual betterment for personal growth rather than purely for employment purposes.

But with many more jobs now asking for a higher education, it is understandable that students see this as the sole purpose.

Personal Growth

Another common response from the survey was personal growth. Students felt that the purpose of higher education was to develop interpersonal skills and exposure to other walks of life.

Students from universities all over the world were included in the study. And some students, from the UK in particular, felt that the purpose of higher education was to learn how to live independently.

Of course, learning to take care of yourself is an important learning process in life. But this seems far removed from the academic learning which higher education aims to provide.

They also felt that the knowledge that they were acquiring developed their personality, and that they were better off for having it.

So, it would seem then that at least some students who responded to the study still felt that one of the original aspects of the purpose of higher education is still relevant today.

Has The Purpose Changed

Along with what respondents of the LSE survey said, the following factors have also influenced the purpose of higher education.

Technology

These days there are many e-learning platforms which aim to give customers an alternative way of learning. But many university degrees are now also delivered online.

For many this makes the separation between costly university, and a free e-platform even more obscure. And puts the purpose of higher education into serious question.

Students are now wondering how the main purpose of higher education can be enlightenment and personal development, if the experience can be shifted online just like any free platform.

Job Market

Today’s job market is much more competitive than yesterdays. There are many vocational fields which now require a degree, and this sets the bar higher across society.

Because of this, higher education has become synonymous with ‘a good job’, as opposed to enlightenment and learning for learning’s sake.

Purpose Depends On The Person

Despite there being a clear change in attitude towards higher education, university is definitely still a valued experience. This means that higher education still has a purpose, but it is now perceived differently.

Ultimately, the purpose is determined by the students’ reasons for being there. And in today’s society, this seems to be predominately for job security.

However, it is important to remember that the underlying core values of the purpose of higher education are still there, despite no longer being as strongly recognized. 

Jamie Willis