The purpose of universities

Some time ago, I wrote about the purpose of education from the perspective of the individual. Today, I am writing from the perspective of universities. As the primary function of universities is to provide education, we may assume that whichever view or values of education we hold from the perspective of students, we could also apply to universities.

Possibly, but there are nuances.

The first view that I put forward is the economic one where the role of education is developing skills and increased productivity through jobs and remuneration. People choose education based on expected return of their education in economic terms.

With this view, universities could be seen as training ground of future workers. But how can universities do this when they do not know what the economies will be like in the future when students graduate? The curriculum and contents of university courses are based on textbooks or research conducted in the past, sometimes centuries ago. Theories that are taught which inform professional practices are developed based on studies bounded by parameters of the projects and the researchers’ worldviews. In a fast-changing technological world, it is hard to see how these contents could be thought to be relevant for future work. Furthermore, academics are trained as researchers who often have not worked anywhere else but universities. So, is it reasonable to expect them to impart practical knowledge or skills for workplace that are so different to academia? Even internships are not adequate because they are only a small part of the students’ degree.

Yet, universities are forthright on branding themselves as employment ready. Many boasts about their ranking in graduate employability. Without clear relationships or directional causality between one’s education and employment, is this a case of the tail wagging the dog or is it just white lie in the economic game? It probably is a marketing strategy rather than truth statements, but it does say something about how universities see themselves – they need to legitimise their position in the economy because they see themselves as economic actors.

Universities do more than legitimise their economic position. They are active players in supply side economics. They create the higher education industry by “selling” education services. International education is an obvious example; so is massification of postgraduate courses and recently higher degree for research courses, and even micro credentials, the latest product where a degree is chopped up into smaller units to allow students to gain qualification and exit the education system. Easier entry to and exit from universities and switching between products within one university is typical way of creating supplies.

At the same time, the structures of universities have moved towards a corporate business model with commercialisation principles including management KPIs, casualisation of staff to manage costs, and depersonalising the university experience. Even the spaces of universities have changed with many universities now look like corporate offices with open spaces, hot desk, or access with security swipe cards.

The second approach that I put forward focuses on the right to education. This view of education considers that every human being must be able to achieve adequate education for their intrinsic value rather than instrumental benefit of return in economic terms.

On the surface, one may surmise that in opening up education to the mass, even if it is “selling”, universities are providing more students to access higher education. But what is the real intentionality and their consequences? If it is about the right to education, then is it also the right to receive education in equitable and equal way? A corporate model of education has seen Australian universities at lower ration of academic to students compared with its “Western” counterparts. Three of Australia’s “top” universities were ranked outside the world’s top 600 for their student-staff ratios.

Increase international students have not been met with increase of support for international students.

The shift to online teaching and learning aim to reduce face to face time and therefore cost of education delivery. Online learning removes the distance between academics and students and the support that they get.

Similarly, casualisation of staff is part of the “flexible” strategy that serves to reduce the university’s salary costs as fixed costs. Casual staff are paid much less than full-time salaried academics. They do most of the teaching at Australian universities, but they are not around the university because they don’t have dedicated office space. It is hard for students to find them to ask for support or just engage in interactions that are important as part of university life. Casual staff are also afforded less professional development. They sometimes teach or convene subjects that they have little expertise in, have little paid time for preparing and delivering tutorials, are provided with little resources to do the job, all of which affect the time that they put toward, and quality of their teaching.

Yet, as universities become more corporate, they also attract more students. There are now more students enrolled in universities than ever. How can this be so? This happens because neoliberalism or operations of the market is not rational. The market of universities relies on, as I wrote here, students as uninformed buyers and universities as makers of supply side economics. Rights are not something that the market privileges. In fact, the market works in favour of those with power and privileges. In an opaque market like higher education, the market maintains itself but not in the way of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. It is maintained through universities legitimising “knowledge” and power.

The third approach of viewing education that I put forward is Sen’s capability approach. It considers education to be a basic capability because education is important in itself and is useful in increasing opportunities in one’s life.

It can be argued that universities demonstrate their capabilities. They do so because they changed their values. It is clear that universities’ values now lie in economic competition and positioning rather than promoting academic and democratic values. Australian universities have responded to economic conditions of government funding by actively choosing the commercialisation track. Their choices are not “adaptive preferences” but conscious choices of economic goals and opportunistic recognition of their power position in the economy.

But there remains one aspect of Sen’s capabilities that is ambivalent, that is responsibility. Universities seem to meet their corporate responsibilities at least to the executive leaders who champion and drive corporate model. But do they sustain responsibility to students? It is hard to say that when the state of education seems far from student-centred but corporate-centred.

For Sen, capability is about the freedom to do and be a one chooses, but that freedom is in account of others’ freedom – responsibility. To that extent, we must ask is it good enough that universities are accountable for themselves, or should we demand for responsibility for others. The answer lies in whether we view universities as a public or private institution. If it is the former, then universities have the responsibility to serve the public – students and society – by pursuing scholarship and learning for its academics and students, through the nexus between teaching and research that does not marginalise any of its community members.

Setting and evaluating capabilities require a weighting of preferences. It is a value-driven exercise. For universities, this weighting is about balancing economic and social responsibilities, and with that, honest articulations of its values – for itself or the public.


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