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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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Reconceptualizing the role of higher education for the education of citizens

What then of the role of higher education as comprising institutions dedicated to shaping and realizing the public good as against simply being presumed to be `a public good'. What would such institutions look like?

First, higher education institutions need leaders appointed based on their commitment to a higher education system dedicated to realizing the good of all. Too often when new appointments to higher education institutions are made much is made of the leader's individual achievements in the area of research or their track record in generating income. Selecting higher education leaders based on their ability to generate income is the easy option. Selecting higher education leaders for their ability to harness the potential of their institution to shape and realize the public good, a public good which does not delineate the `public' by virtue of their attendance at higher education or the `good' based on the success of their students, but seeks to influence wider socio-economic issues, is a far more challenging and contentious objective.

Second, comes the integration of economic and social justice issues into academic life, not through the narrowly focused `access' offices and programmes wherein a tiny number of academics and administrators are deployed as a `sideline' activity of their higher education institution, nor by the delivery of training programmes for industry in an atmosphere of `political' correctness with such activity undertaken for political and economic reasons but still viewed as not really worthy of a place in academia. What is needed is a serious attempt to mainstream economic and social well-being issues into the everyday life of higher education institutions that is reflected in the culture of higher education institutions and integrated into everyday teaching and research.

Third, I believe that the world needs a place and a space where the direction of human development can be contested. Higher education is unique as a public good in that it does confer private benefit. Having a positional advantage in society should open up choices for ourselves, and, if we believe in the promotion of social justice, for others. Having a positional advantage in society gives citizens individual power and influence. Higher education can have a role at least in opening up to citizens the possibility that they too have influence and choice as to how the development of society progresses. If higher education wants to be a serious player in realizing the public good it has to go beyond conceptualizing its role in the pursuit of social justice simply as the implementation of initiatives for the disadvantaged student. Instead it needs to focus not just on the preparation of graduates for employment but also on the role that graduates have as citizens in society. It is the `advantaged' students who may ultimately hold the key to realizing not just economic prosperity but also influencing the development of a more equitable society. Ignoring their role in shaping society will only replicate existing social structures, and ironically, may also result in all of us living in a world which is less successful, both economically and socially.


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