What Is The Purpose of Higher Education?
“What is the purpose of education? This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women.” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote those words in 1930, and decades later, the debate continues.
What would you say is the purpose of getting an education? Is the whole point of going to college or university simply to learn, period? Or is it to gain a set of skills and knowledge that will help you be ‘job-ready’ or ‘employable’?
The question is worth considering as it could affect your program choices and overall attitude and ambitions in school. You might say the question applies even more so to higher education, since it will impact you financially, not only because of tuition costs, but also with time spent in a classroom instead of on the job.
Some people become ‘life-learners’; they never complete their schooling or enter the working world. They simply continue ‘learning’. Others take trade-specific courses to help them graduate and start earning money as quickly as possible.
Mike Rustin, professor of sociology at the University of East London, puts it this way: “On the one hand, you have the marketised view of universities as equipping people to earn their living, and on the other hand, a traditional view that universities are about pure learning.”
Knowledge is power, so it stands to reason that the more knowledge you have, the better off you are. But not all knowledge is practical for everyday life. After all, a string of letters following your name doesn’t necessarily put food in your stomach.
The term itself, ‘higher education’, harkens back to ancient times when centers of learning were only for the elite to ponder the deeper mysteries of the mind and to achieve true enlightenment and understanding. However, this is no longer the case with most institutions of higher education. Usually, the high cost of tuition dictates that students take classes that will help them in their long-term career goals, not simply to broaden their horizons.
For many students today, education is about getting a better job and having a successful career. Thus many view higher education as an opportunity to advance their vocational and professional skills. Colleges and universities are expected to measure and develop students’ hard and soft skills, preparing them to compete in a knowledge-based economy. Emphasis is placed on grades and on what will look good in a portfolio or a resume.
Lord Robbins, a British economist, stated in 1963 that universities have four objectives: instruction in skills, promotion of the general powers of the mind, advancement of learning, and transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship. Clearly, learning for learnings’ sake is only part of the equation.
Perhaps, as in all aspects of life, balance is key. Investing time in self-enlightenment is all well and good, but walking away with the skills required for an in-demand trade is not too shabby either.