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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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Students as citizens in the new millennium

In an era of human capital theory, developing students to take their place in society equipped with the appropriate competencies including the so-called appropriate `soft skills' of leadership, team-playing, communication skills, etc. is becoming part of industry's claims on higher education. Higher education is still to trying to come to terms with the notion of a greater emphasis being placed on the application of knowledge. Higher education and industry both have reservations about each other. Although debates within higher education as to what counts as knowledge have opened out in recent years (see for example Gibbons et al. (1994) and Scott (2000)) the conflicts which arise between the needs of the economy and the needs of higher education institutions are bound to come to a head when higher education situates itself within a still limited discourse of arguments around what counts as knowledge.
Industry and higher education are both part of modern society. Both should play an important part in the lives of citizens. However, when one splits the individual into two separate roles of student and employee, one discounts or ignores that a person's identity is comprised of a number of roles in society. In the case of education we have a choice in respect of the:

kinds of morality which underpin versions of (higher) education. On the one hand a `thick morality' is grounded in notions of the common good as the ethical basis for policy and practice; while a `thin morality' is grounded in competitive individualism and hierarchical divisions. Put another way would be to ask whether the purpose of higher education holds ethical values to be central, as much as the development of knowledge and skills?
(Walker and Nixon 2004: 5)

Arguments for a liberal education might suggest that we are talking about the protection of the study of some dying subjects, with academics racing to protect their particular patch of the academic world. The idea of a liberal education is more about:

An education that is `liberal' in that it liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the world. That is what Seneca means by the cultivation of humanity.
(Nussbaum 1997: 8)

Nussbaum (1997) has identified three capacities for the cultivation of humanity. First, to be able to examine, question, justify one's own life and traditions because `democracy needs citizens who can think for themselves rather than simply deferring to authority' and `who can reason together about their choices rather than just trading claims and counterclaims'. Second, to cultivate a sense that we do not just belong either to our local area or country but that we are connected to `all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern'. Third, that we cultivate an ability to place ourselves in another's life and see things from their perspective (Nussbaum 1997: 9-11).

Cultivating humanity might seem like some utopian concept. If one were to take a more utilitarian perspective on cultivating humanity what employer would not like employees to have the ability to look beyond their own habits and beliefs. A society intent on cultivating humanity is not without risk for individuals, organizations and society. There may be `winners and losers'. Is society ready to cultivate humanity? If the answer is no then maybe we need to ask or at least be able to ask why not? Davis (1998) speaks about students being allowed to exercise choice and to act as free agents. While today we speak of higher education providing students with greater choice and flexibility, the pity is that this choice is limited to subject and delivery option choices and not to giving our student-citizens choices in respect of the kind of society we work and live in.

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