What is the purpose of higher education?



This is a question that cuts straight to heart of education as a collective or social good and therefore continues to be contested. This is particularly true of higher or tertiary education. When thinking of primary education, the purpose is a little clearer, children go to school to learn basic skills such as reading, writing and math, and to begin to socialize outside of their immediate environment. Secondary education continues this task but with more purpose and focus and with an emphasis on test-taking and results. At first glance, this appears to be a matter of course, a neutral exercise even. However, for the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, these early and formative educative experiences are replete with symbolic violence as a child or young person’s sense of self and place in the world is remolded and reshaped from that which has been learned in early experiences to that which seeks to reproduce dominant social structures and to reaffirm social hierarchies. To draw on Shaull1 we might therefore say that:

There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

What then of education in universities or institutes of technology, are these the sites of enlightenment we wish them to be? Does higher education encompass a ‘practice of freedom’ or does it merely bring about further conformity? In a perfect world, the answer would be yes, higher education does encapsulate a ‘practice of freedom’ and, upon entering higher education, the focus for students would shift considerably. Critical thinking would form part of the repertoire of every student, students would be encouraged to engage with and join the discourse in their chosen area of study, knowledge for the sake of knowing would be as valuable as knowledge for the sake of doing and students would be encouraged to question and critique all that comes before them. This may seem like a somewhat antiquated or quaint idea of what tertiary education should or could be. Indeed, in the course of writing these last sentences I cannot help but think of that great early educator of  persons in the form of Socrates for whom, relayed to us through the pen of his great protégé, the unexamined life was not worth living. For Socrates, education and the quest for knowledge had three important strands:

  • First, a person must accept what they do not know;
  • Second, the person must realize that self-knowledge or understanding was desirable;
  • And, lastly, truth, including self-awareness, comes through questioning.

Does this not capture, still, the purpose of higher learning? Furthermore, does the Socratic method of questioning, challenging and clarifying beliefs not still underlie the very structure of science and the pursuit of knowledge through education, for what is higher education if not the pursuit of knowledge?

In reality, education has evolved away from purely being about knowledge for the sake of knowledge to include things like professional and vocational training. In doing so it has arguably encountered a dilemma of the sort suggested by Donald A. Schon2 when he wrote about the dilemma of rigour versus relevance

The dilemma of rigor or relevance. In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or to society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. The practitioner is confronted with a choice. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to his standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems where he cannot be rigorous in any way he knows how to describe?

If we take Schon’s (1995) analysis at face value and if we accept that there is both a high ground and a swamp, from here it can be suggested that higher education does at least two things, it provides for the acquisition of knowledge for the sake knowing and for the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of application. Yet this still seems a somewhat vague or at least unsatisfactory answer to the question of ‘What is the purpose of higher education’. Unsatisfactory in the sense that even if this were wholly true and accurate, it feels to me as though higher education could and should be about so much more. By way of addressing this, I am led to ask a further question in the form of, who is higher education for?

Despite the opening up of education and the widening of the attendance base over the last several decades, access to higher education remains problematic for some. For example, a recent report by Social Justice Ireland3 shows that:

  • Family poverty remains one of the largest determinants of educational outcomes.
  • The children of parents with low levels of education have significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education.
  • The achievement of pupils in schools with concentrations of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is still well below that of other schools despite steady improvements since 2007

Compounding this disadvantage, a study by the Higher Education Authority4 shows that:

  •  People who come from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to go to college.
  • Students from wealthier backgrounds will immediately go on to earn significantly more than those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Nine months after graduation the average students from an affluent background will be paid around 30% more than one with the same qualification from a disadvantaged background.
  • Students in high-end healthcare courses, such as medicine as well as business, finance, and engineering programmes are the most likely to come from affluent backgrounds.

When faced with evidence of this sort, it is hard not to think that the project of reproducing social hierarchies of the sort spoken about in earlier paragraphs persists in the higher educative field. So then, having started with a problem in trying the decide the purpose of education, I finish with an arguably bigger one in asking ‘who is higher education for?’. It should be noted that higher education is not the route that everyone may wish to take and that there are many equally valuable alternative pathways open to persons. However, it cannot be denied that higher education still excludes by virtue of being delivered within a society which excludes, and the evidence presented here bears this assertion out.

In summary, I would suggest that the purpose of higher education is and, of course, must be about professional and vocational training. It must also be about the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowing. These are functional aspects of a purpose, these are the ‘real’ things that a university exists to do. On the surface, the purpose of higher education, in as much as it is stated as such, is also about social inclusion and disrupting barriers thus promoting social solidarity and equality. However, while the latter may form part of the purpose of higher education a purpose without ambition is just words.


1. Shaull, R. (1999) In Mayo, P [Ed], Gramsci, Freire, and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

2. Schon, D.A. (1995) The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology, Change 27(6): pp. 27-34.

3. See: https://www.socialjustice.ie/sites/default/files/attach/policy-issue-article/6203/2020-01-16-election2020briefingeducationfinal.pdf

4. See: https://hea.ie/assets/uploads/2019/10/Higher-Education-Spatial-Socio-Economic-Profile-Oct-2019.pdf