What should higher education be for?

By Charles Seaford, Laura Stoll and Louis Coiffait -

In the foreword of his recent report on UK higher education funding, Lord Browne wrote that:

“the return to graduates for studying will be on average around 400%”.


In this world view higher education is an economic investment, and there is and should be pressure to take a high paying job. Indeed it would be inefficient for graduates to take lower paid jobs: the market, as manifest in salary scales, is the best way of allocating scarce resources. The resulting headlines focus on debates about tuition fees, scholarships and Return on Investment (ROI).


The dominance of this narrow market-based lens for viewing higher education is in danger of crowding out alternative or more rounded views – potentially damaging the well-being of individual graduates and whole nations permanently. Is there really nothing more to life than the bottom line? As the philosopher AC Grayling warns, are universities really the;

“mere continuation of school for the same sausage-machine purpose of churning out employees”

Don’t we need qualified people who are prepared to take relatively low paid jobs, especially in the public and voluntary sectors? Don’t the benefits of higher education extend to wider society, beyond individual graduates? Don’t we value the personal and intellectual development that higher education provides for its own sake – and want to make it available to as many people as possible rather than just those who have, or are aiming to make, lots of money?

There are really two questions here which are connected but distinct. The first is what should higher education be for? And the second is how should we pay for it? There is a lot of public debate about the second, but perhaps not enough of the first. Many of us have an uneasy feeling that underlying Browne’s stance is the view that higher education, when not delivering clearly job-related skills, is a luxury, pursued for pleasure or entertainment (a point highlighted by Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement to that effect on meeting a Norse Literature student). Some subsidies for skill development are justified (where there is an identifiable market failure or where a subject is ‘strategically important and vulnerable’) but why should we care too much about the luxury side: surely this can be left to the market and consumer choice?

But non-job-related education is not entertainment. Its goal from individuals’ point of view is not to provide pleasure but to prepare them to lead ‘the good life’, enabling those around them to do the same. In reality the distinction between learning job-related skills and other parts of higher education is overstated: the skills needed for ‘work’ and the skills needed for ‘life’ are often the same, and in any case, the evidence shows that jobs are often an important part of the good life – both in terms of income and in giving people a sense of purpose or meaning. Beyond this, people may disagree what exactly the good life is but they tend to agree that it is a good thing and that everyone is entitled to it. Educators need to be clear that, like health care professionals, they make a vital contribution to it. It is true that as things stand, not everyone will benefit significantly from higher education in this way – and perhaps not every higher education institution (HEI) is capable of delivering this kind of benefit. But let no-one who has benefited deny the possibility that others less fortunate will one day be able to do so. This is what higher education is for – and for as many people as possible.

Alongside these contributions to individuals’ lives there are benefits of higher education which are best considered at the societal level. These obviously include the gains to the economy as a whole via its role in attracting the capital and skilled workers necessary for the UK to remain competitive in the global market. But higher education also leads to better quality goods and services (including public service provision). Links (and student transfers) between institutions allow important international relationships to be fostered. It also brings wider cultural benefits to society, including the diffusion of knowledge through schooling, public education and the arts; and it enables increased levels of social mobility.

However Lord Browne and his fellow-travellers have a trump card. Advocates of this broader view of education have not agreed on what they mean by the good life, let alone how to measure whether higher education is indeed preparing people to live it or to deliver these wider social goods. By contrast it is relatively easy to measure the earnings potential created by this or that degree course (not completely straightforward but relatively easy) and to devise a way of holding HEI’s to account for delivering it (market based, i.e. using student fees). As management guru Peter Drucker famously wrote, what gets measured gets done.

So let us try to meet these criticisms. We believe the good life is one in which people flourish. This means they relate well with the people and the world around them, and as a result have good feelings and a sense of satisfaction with their life as a whole. This idea dates back to Aristotle, who couched it in terms of excellence, meaning fulfilling one’s nature. More recently psychologists Ryan and Deci[1] have couched it in terms of ‘functioning’ and satisfaction of ‘psychological needs’. These needs are satisfied by relationships, autonomy – or freedom from restriction, and a sense of purpose, meaning and competence. Money can play a part in all of those things but it’s not an end of itself.

Whether these needs are satisfied depends partly on a person’s circumstances – employment status, level and stability of income, housing conditions, education and so on. Also important are an individual’s personal resources – things like optimism, emotional resilience, self-esteem and health. These are largely innate but can also be affected by how people behave and feel and what they experience – there is a feedback loop. In short, the good life is one where individuals’ social and economic circumstances together with their personal resources lead to experiencing high levels of well-being.

Higher education contributes to this in a variety of ways: it contributes to the material prosperity of alumni and of society more widely; it (to varying degrees) removes class and location based barriers to opportunity; but it also contributes to an individual’s personal resources in ways that allow them to feel capable, to pursue meaningful activities, to have aesthetic experiences[2], to feel a degree of autonomy.

There is nothing very remarkable in this list. The various contributions itemised are the objectives of many if not most educators. There is also well established practical understanding, if not always agreement, of how to achieve them. What is important is that they are based on a more solid foundation than any purely economic set of objectives. They are not merely whimsical preferences or luxuries, but the well researched bases for well-being. On the other hand we are not under any illusions – it will be hard to persuade many people of the need for this shift. For example some recent qualitative research commissioned by nef indicated that many young people see no point in learning for its own sake, that it only has value if it contributes to a career.[3]

So if higher education should prepare people for the good life, how should it be held to account? How can we be sure that it really is delivering this? Perhaps we need to redesign the examinations that it sets and the degrees that it awards so that they also test, reward and demonstrate the skills needed for flourishing, rather than only those needed to secure jobs or increase salaries. In the UK, perhaps The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) should ask all institutions to re-apply for degree awarding powers, only passing those that perform well across these new, broader criteria. Perhaps the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) needs to adopt well-being criteria comparable to the economic criteria it already uses in its decision making.

Does this seem far-fetched? Remember that the Prime Minister, David Cameron has said:

“Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.”[4]

David Willetts, Minister of State for Higher Education, has also stated that we need a measure of well-being to rival GDP. If we are incorporating subsidiary objectives into our assessment criteria then why not the main objective?

So the relative ease of measuring economic performance may have given Browne a trump card, but not the ace of trumps. For there is a well-established theory of what is needed to create the good life and there is no good reason why, with an assessment framework that holds HEIs to account, higher education cannot successfully deliver many of its elements in the future.


Charles Seaford is Head of the Centre for Well-being at nef (the new economics foundation) and takes an overview role of all of its work. He is a member of the ONS Advisory Forum on national well-being and was the author of nef’s recent report on the economics of housing, One Million Homes.


Laura Stoll is an Assistant Researcher at the Centre for Well-being at nef. She has been researching for the History of Wellbeing project and co-ordinates the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics.


nef is a London-based ‘think and do tank’ founded in 1986. It is unusual in combining rigorous analysis and policy debate with developing practical solutions ‘on the ground’. The Centre for Well-being at nef is an award-winning, internationally recognised centre of expertise. It is currently advising the UK Office of National Statistics, the European Union statistical office (Eurostat) and the OECD, and working with the University of Cambridge, Halloran Philanthropies and the Department of Health. It has also published a number of influential reports, notably Measuring our progress: the power of well-being (2011), The (un)Happy Planet Index (2006 and 2009) and National Accounts of Well-being (2009).


Louis Coiffait is a Policy Manager within the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning where he is researching issues such as higher education, enterprise education, STEM skills, education data and careers advice. He tweets and blogs on higher education policy news and analysis at @LouisMMCoiffait and http://www.pearsoncpl.com/category/he-policy-blog/. Louis is also a Fellow of the RSA, a regular volunteer, a school Governor in Hackney and runs the social enterprise Work&Teach in his spare time.


The Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning aims to be a respected voice in education that harnesses the depth and breadth of expertise within Pearson, the world’s leading learning company, and key external partners, to provide a range of valuable, original and timely outputs for the sector and for policymakers, on the key issues that matter.

[1] Ryan R and Deci E (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist 55, 68-78

[2] Sir Ken Robinson describes aesthetic experiences as those when your ‘senses are operating at their peak’, you feel ‘fully alive’, ‘present in the moment’ and ‘resonating with the excitement of the experience’. He argues that the arts address this idea. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U for the RSA Animate of his October 2010 talk.

[3] Work currently in progress, new economics foundation




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