What is the purpose of higher education?



I first experienced higher education (HE) in 1997 when I went to university in the UK. For me at that time, HE was studying the subject that I was passionate about. I wasn’t thinking about my long-term career or ‘employability’ and ‘graduate attributes’. It felt like quite a privilege, especially as it was free. I was the first person in my extended family to go to university. My family saw me far more ‘academic’ than I saw myself. I went to a university that was previously a polytechnic, so it didn’t have a prestigious reputation. I don’t remember feeling too intimidated.

Feeling intimidated by ‘academia’ began when I started working in HE from 2006. I felt like I didn’t belong because of the way I spoke, and not seeing myself as academic. At first, I felt pressure to adapt the way I spoke and had very low confidence in my academic writing ability. It was then that I started to question the exclusive nature of HE.

In addition to its exclusive nature, due to neo-liberalism, HE has become a commodity with many institutions operating in a corporate way. Words such as ‘entrepreneurship’, ‘employability’ and ‘graduate attributes’ alongside slogans such as ‘centre of excellence’ and ‘world’s top 50 ’ are being used to ‘recruit’. The commercialisation of education has led to even greater inequalities and injustices, especially surrounding precarity and student fees.
HE should be a place of societal progress, a place to contribute towards radically changing society, helping to make it more equitable. HE should be focused on fighting against institutionalisation and discrimination. It should be a place where all members can be openly critical of the inequalities that surround universities. HE should be an environment for all members to feel safe to openly speak out, participate in radical change and feel supported in doing so.

HE should be a space for students to look critically at the subject matter they are studying. Bhamra et al. (2018) question whether the purpose of education ‘…should be to perpetuate existing power structures and norms or equip students with the critical tools to question them’. Students are encouraged to look critically at the subject matter, but often in a prescriptive and regulated way, thus, perpetuating the existing power structures. HE should be a place where students can engage in looking more deeply and honestly at how inequalities exist within their discipline and the inequalities that surround them.
‘Student agency’, ‘student-centred’ and ‘student empowerment’ are current buzz words. Students often have little agency when it comes to original thinking, as assessments and assessment criteria are often prescriptive so that there is only one way to write and one way to think. The type of assessment assigned is also one whereby those who come from privileged backgrounds are more likely to achieve higher grades, therefore, reducing the agency and empowerment of many.

Even though I can see HE has more students from diverse backgrounds and is more accessible than a few decades ago, taking part in the DISCs project has made me even more aware of how discriminative the HE system can be. This has led me to question how complicit we are and how much of a radical change is needed. But this change cannot happen until universities are willing to look critically and speak openly about the societal issues that exist within.


Bhambra, G. K., Gebrial, D., Nişancıoğlu, K. (2018) Decolonising the university. London: Pluto Press.