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Is there a need to debate the role of higher education
and the public good?

Author - Sandra Fisher

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No limits on learning: higher education for citizens of the world

In the words of Barnett:

If higher education is to be in any form of business, it has to be in the highest forms of human development. If education is an intentional set of processes aimed at producing worthwhile forms of human development, higher education has to be in the business of producing the most advanced forms of human development. A higher education designed to bring about critical persons capable of working towards a learning society can be no other.
(Barnett 1997b: 162)

Barnett proposes that higher education seek to replace the idea of developing students critical thinking with its focus on knowledge, and instead to develop `critical being'. Critical being focuses criticality in three domains, i.e. knowledge, self and the world. I suppose what Barnett is calling for is a more embracing higher education for students which attaches importance to the role of critical reason, self-reflection and critical action. Barnett (1997b) suggests that developing a curriculum for critical being presents challenges and risks for academics. Such a curriculum would seek to invoke the highest level of criticality, i.e. `transformatory critique' which would impact on the three domains of criticality, i.e. knowledge, self and world via knowledge critique, reconstruction of self and critique in action (collective reconstruction of world). This contrasts with the lowest level of criticality, i.e. critical skills which impact on the three domains of criticality in a much more limited way, promoting discipline-specific critical thinking skills (knowledge), self-monitoring to given standards and norms (self) and problem-solving (means-end instrumentalism) (world) (Barnett 1997b: 103). In essence Barnett wants higher education to introduce students to the potential of knowledge, self and the world, to a bigger landscape beyond the immediate acquisition of a piece of knowledge, skill or end result.

Developing a curriculum for critical being would present academics and students with challenges. For academics `setting up an educational framework in which students can make their own (author's italics) structured explorations, testing their ideas in the critical company of each other' may mean that `pedagogical roles and relationships become uncertain and necessarily invite risk into their proceedings' (Barnett 1997b: 110). For students viewing their education beyond their passing of examinations or gaining that prized credential may initially challenge their perception that education is a means to individual ends.

We cannot deny that most students go to higher education, particularly at undergraduate level, with a view to obtaining employment and in particular `good' employment. However, to create higher education institutions where students `develop their critical faculties' and are encouraged `not only to participate in the production of knowledge but to believe, too, that if they want to, they can change things' (Barr 2002: 322) is to recognize the potential of higher education to shape and realize the good of all citizens. If we want to remain hopeful of the transformatory potential of higher education then government, industry, higher education institutions, society and individuals have to be willing to put the theory into practice. The closer alignment between higher education and industry has the potential to open up possibilities of not just demanding but of realizing `a correspondence between citizens of civil society and citizenship in organizational workplaces' (Casey 2003: 632).

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