HIGHER EDUCATION: What is it for?

(Outline of talk given by Michael Schluter at Nottingham University, February 2004)

“We see a higher education sector which meets the needs of the economy in terms of trained people, research, and technology transfer. At the same time it needs to enable all suitably qualified individuals to develop their potential both intellectually and personally, and to provide the necessary storehouse of expertise in science and technology, and the arts and humanities which defines our civilisation and culture.”

DFES, The Future of Higher Education, Cm 5735, Jan 2003

“It is through our responses to other persons that we become persons. It is others who challenge, enlighten and enrich us. There is no such thing as the isolated individual … all real life is meeting.”

J H Oldham, 1958 ‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.’

(The Biblical book of Proverbs, 700BC?)

1. Introduction
  • An important question for students as they have to pay more
  • Important for universities and their staff if they are to believe in themselves
  • Important for the state/the ‘community’ to achieve national/social aspirations
  • Two main paradigms possible, with very different implications
2. The Goals of Higher Education in a Materialistic Paradigm

Goal 1: to maximise economic performance

  • of the nation
  • of companies
  • of the individual

Goal 2: To achieve social mobility/an equitable distribution of income

Is the motive really greater fairness in society? Or does this assume:

  • meritocracy is the key to national economic performance
  • level of income is the key to personal happiness

Goal 3: to develop potential of the individual, both intellectually and personally (DFES)

  • Is ‘potential’ understood primarily in economic terms?
  • Or, is the issue wider experience, greater pleasures and freedoms?

Goal 4: To provide the necessary storehouse in science and technology, and the arts and humanities, which defines our civilisation and our culture

What does this mean?

3. The Materialistic Paradigm Leads to a Number of Problems:

(a) Dangers of commercialisation of universities, leading to secrecy around research findings, conflicts of interest for research scientists, etc
(b) Absence of rationale/motivation for teachers to spend time with students around the teaching role/transfer of knowledge.
(c) Increasingly narrow focus by students on ‘qualifications’. Narrowness of specialisation.
(d) Bias in university investment and recruitment towards vocational orientated degrees over against the humanities.
(e) Lack of preparation of students for an active citizenship agenda.
(f) Lack of preparation for the changing world of business and public services?

But is there an alternative paradigm?

4. Foundations of a Relational Paradigm

A Christian understanding

  • God as trinity: ultimate reality is relational
  • Christianity is a relational religion
  • The meaning of ‘purpose’ and ‘ethics’

The understanding Christians share with those of other religions or none:

  • Individual well-being is determined by a person’s relational context
    (identity, security, self-worth …)
  • The role of other people in shaping us – as in ‘Personalism’
  • ‘All real life is meeting’ (Oldham)
5. The Goals of Higher Education in a Relational Paradigm

 A Christian understanding.


  • to learn to see the world as God sees it
  • to know/understand other people and myself
  • ‘to think God’s thoughts after him’


  • to exercise creativity in the arts, sciences, business …
  • to use learning to better look after the environment

The understanding Christians share with those of other religions or none

The Common Good:

  • to better understand and thus influence social structures for good
  • to increase knowledge to more effectively provide material and emotional support to individuals in need in our own society and throughout the world
6. What difference would it make if a university worked within a Relational paradigm?

Academic priorities

  • balance of teaching and research
  • balance of humanities and sciences

Content of courses, e.g.

  • law/criminology
  • architecture/town planning
  • finance/economics
  • medicine/social work

Lifestyle of students. Some issues:

  • use of email and mobile phones
  • importance attached to living/eating arrangements
  • management of inter-ethnic understanding
  • links with local communities
  • role of the counselling service to promote self-awareness
  • the care structure within the university

University engagement with the families of students