What is the purpose of higher education?



It is obvious, isn’t it? The purpose of higher education is to ‘make your parents happy’. Not proud. Happy. I received this as an answer, after I asked my students to engage in an anonymous free-writing activity that addressed the question: ‘What is the purpose of higher education?’ Others mentioned pressure, pressure to please parents and peers, or pressure to adhere to social norms. As one student bluntly put it: ‘To amplify the already present anxiety in students who don’t know what they are doing.’ It was a striking insight into the stress experienced by some students when pursuing further education.

Other answers hinted at the cause(s) of anxiety. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed how students are more concerned about their long term career prospects now than when I first started teaching. With good reason, too. I get the impression that many students are worried about their earning power after they graduate and whether they will ever be able to rent let alone afford to purchase their own home. This is understandable as Irish society now deals with the ramifications of years of austerity causing considerable concern among my students about their future.

The language of graduate employability, it is safe to say, is now embedded in conversations between what are called “stakeholders” at all levels in the Irish higher education sector. It is even reflected in the students’ answers I gathered and then subsequently visualised in the word cloud you see beside this piece. Words like career, job, and employment are all visible. What I fear is that this emphasis on employability and skills will not have the desired effect [it reminded me of the cartoon where the teacher encourages his students to think critically but do ‘exactly as I say’] and produce a graduate body much like that depicted in the Pink Floyd video for ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.

Employability and skills was not have been what John Henry Newman had in mind in The Idea of a University but its clear from asking my students to engage in this exercise that their ideas about university echo some of those outlined by Newman.

When I first tried to answer the question ‘what is purpose of Higher Education?’ I only wrote three words: “to foster curiosity.” I was unhappy with this as it was (probably) going to be deemed too short for the purposes of this blog piece and let’s face it, my analysis is not exactly ground breaking. That educators are supposed to stoke the fires of curiosity is something that, I am sure, we can all agree on; indeed teachers and scholars have spoken of this for centuries.

I thought of that wonderful ninth-century poem in Irish beginning ‘Messe ocus Pangur Bán’ [Me and White Pangur]. It is a lovely verse written by an Irish monk in Germany comparing his pet cat’s hunting skills to his own ability to work out an intellectual problem: ‘He is joyous with speedy going where a mouse sticks in his sharp claw: I too am joyous, where I understand a difficult dear question.’ [Fáelid-sem cu n-déne dul/ hinglen luch inna gérchrub;/ hi tucu cheist n-doraid n-dil,/ os mé chene am fáelid.] It reminds us, though, of the importance of time, of reflection, of contemplation, and of the value of curiosity.

The cat, like the poet, pursues his prey/enquiry with the spirit of curiosity. I realised that I did not want to write a blog piece about the purpose of higher education without considering my students’ perspectives. That many of my students share this sense of adventure and recognise the new opportunities that they can avail of to learn about other people and cultures is so refreshing and easily forgotten as universities adapt to the current economic climate. Words like ‘explore’ particularly in terms of their own identity and that of others, and topics like ‘learn about new cultures’ and embrace ‘diversity’ were some frequent and notable responses. They see further education, rightly, as an opportunity to embark on a journey of both intellectual and self-discovery.

I feel at times that their enthusiasm for learning and the desire to acquire new knowledge is lost or overlooked (at worst) or given only lip service (at best). A slight smile appeared on my face when I read one response: ‘to generate revolutionary ideas.’ There is so much excitement, so much enthusiasm in that answer and there is a sense that this student sees higher education as a great opportunity. I am very lucky to teach, and learn, with them.