The Higher Education and Research Bill, currently on its way through parliament (about to progress to the House of Lords), sets out proposals for the most significant transformation of UK higher education in 25 years.
In his foreword to the white paper “Success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice,” Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, wrote that our universities underpin “a strong economy and a flourishing society,” “drive competitiveness” and “nurture the values that sustain our open democracy.” This sets the tone for a bill that seeks to ensure coincidence between academic quality and benefits to the individual student, to the economy, and to our society at large.
Many of the bill’s proposals are welcome, but questions about the conditions for this kind of coincidence have been contested over thousands of years. The documents require constructive, critical, consideration.
First, since the transformation of polytechnics into universities in the early 1990s, there have been prominent initiatives to connect academic study with employability and research with social and economic “impact.” But to what extent does the government now think of higher education as primarily about producing individuals who secure certain kinds of economic advantage and jobs?
Second, does the government recognise that learning and the dissemination of ideas are also—like friendships—good in themselves, regardless of their consequences for the individual’s career or the economy at large? Imagine trying to characterise what is good about friendship to someone who has never shared projects with other people or taken pleasure in others’ success. If there are such internal, constitutive, benefits to learning, then that sets limits in principle to the relevance of external assessment scales.
Third, what is the relation between individual benefits and benefits for the collective? If students pay their own fees, there is a presumption that higher education is good for them individually—and yet, why suppose that will always be good for society or the economy overall? Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill, to name a few philosophers, set out complex conditions for individual self-realisation and a flourishing society to co-exist. But, as Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, there is little hope of achieving such coincidence in a modern culture that exalts individuality, competitiveness, and the pleasures of exclusivity over community roles and co-operation.
Consider the proposed…