What is a university degree for?

With universities facing significant financial pressures as a result of Covid-19, a Lancaster University Professor has called for a renewed focus on the educational purposes of undergraduate degrees.

And, says Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University and Deputy Director of the ESRC and OfSRE funded Centre for Global Higher Education, Professor Paul Ashwin, we are in danger of losing a sense of the ways in which going to university can transform students’ lives.

“My argument is not that universities face an educational crisis or are completely failing their students,” he says. “There are many students who gain a great deal from their time at university and are transformed by their experiences.

“Instead, my argument is that we need to re-focus our attention on the educational purposes of studying for an undergraduate degree rather than becoming fixated by the economic value of such a degree.”

Professor Ashwin’s latest book, Transforming University Education, written in an accessible manner for anyone with an interest in higher education in the UK and internationally, draws on his engagement with an international body of knowledge of literature about what contributes to a ‘high-quality’ university education.

He argues that, around the world, economic arguments have come to dominate thinking about the purpose and nature of university education, a situation that has intensified with the social and economic challenges created by Covid-19.

“These economic arguments create a situation where the social privilege of students is misunderstood as an indication of their ability and the reputation and prestige of universities is misunderstood as an indication of their quality,” says Professor Ashwin

A series of related myths, he adds, have fuelled current misunderstanding of the educational aspects of higher education and the book explores what is needed to reinvigorate understanding of a university education.

Designed to spark debate, the book also offers a manifesto for transforming university education.

“It challenges unhelpful myths that distort our understanding of the educational potential of a university education and sets out an alternative vision,” says Professor Ashwin.

“This is important if we are to work towards university education that consistently enables students to transform their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world.

“It is this kind of education that will prepare them to work with others to make a contribution to the transformation of society and to meet the undoubted challenges that face the world in the future.”

He adds: “Economic considerations of the value of higher education have over-reached themselves and have begun to distort debates about the educational value of university education.”

“This does not mean that the economic value is not important. It is just that it does not help us develop a sense of what a high-quality university education looks like.”

The argument in the book is that the educational purpose of a university education is not to prepare someone for their role in the future workforce.

Rather, says Professor Ashwin, the educational purpose of a higher education is to bring students into a transformational relationship to knowledge that changes their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world.

This undoubtedly, he adds, prepares them to contribute to society including through their contribution to the labour market but this is a by-product of the central educational purpose of a higher education rather than its driving force.

The book shows the mess we get into when we lose this clear sense of the educational purpose of higher education and suggests how we can put these purposes back into the centre of thinking about university education,” says Professor Ashwin.

Transforming University Education’, is published by Bloomsbury on 17th September 2020

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