The true purpose of higher education is to serve everyone

The True Purpose of Higher Education – to serve itself or to serve everyone?

The true purpose of higher education is to serve everyone

I remember my first job as an academic in higher education. At university there was always a sense of competition in the air, a pressure to come up with the newest theory or idea, to be published in the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals, and to defer to the more senior academics. Hours and hours were spent deliberating on this theory or that theory in amongst doing research, reading piles of journals and literature, along with the daily grind around teaching schedules, preparation, marking and tutoring.

But in and amongst all of this, what was the true purpose of higher education?

The academic staff were often stressed and overstretched, as were the students, having to jump many hurdles to pass their exams and written assignments. The constant moan from the senior academic at the time about dealing with colleagues was, "It’s like herding cats" and that they were a law unto themselves, doing what was in their own interest or for the benefit of their academic credibility – in-between keeping an eye on the education of students.

There was also a sense of the university being a step away from being connected to the local community and society at large – breeding a feeling of insularity and a cottage industry for its own sake.

Whether this is your experience or not, this for me raises the questions:

  • What is the purpose of higher education?
  • How much does higher education truly serve a common purpose?

In looking at what might constitute a common purpose, there are a number of views. Kelly, McLellan, McNicholl (2009) report that in the UK:

  • The impact on the national economy: Higher education is a "substantial industry, with a significant impact on the national economy." It is particularly effective in generating GDP per capita (Gross Domestic Product) e.g. contributing £33.4 billion in 2007/2008.

  • The impact on employment: "Universities directly provided over 314,600 full-time equivalent jobs, representing more than 1% of the workforce in employment."

There is also:

  • Academic Literature: The many academics who work in universities write and publish copious books and articles in journals – adding to the vast amount of books and journals in the many university libraries (online and physical).

  • Research: In 2007, the United States spent $368 billion on research and development, and nearly 18% of that went to fund basic research (driven by a scientist's curiosity or interest in a scientific question), and 22% went to applied research designed to solve practical problems (Boroush, 2008). We know that some of these have impacted on our lives, e.g. Edward Jenner’s small pox vaccination in 1796 and in 1897, Marie Curie’s work on radiation (Boroush, 2008).

  • Student attainment of qualifications: In the United States during the 2013-14 school year, colleges and universities are expected to award:

             - 943,000 associate degrees
             - 1.8 million bachelor degrees
             - 778,000 masters degrees, and,
             - 177,000 doctors degrees (National Centre for Educational Statistics)

However, given all the studies, research, books, articles, literature, attained qualifications and the amount of money spent on higher education, could we truly say that for all of this our world is benefitting and that we are eradicating our ills and problems?

Currently we live in a world where illness and disease are rising exponentially. For example, the incidence of cancer globally has increased from 12.7 million new cases in 2008 to 14.1 million in 2012, when there were 8.2 million deaths. By 2032, it is expected to hit almost 25 million a year – a 70% increase (Boseley, 2014).

Other examples of the dis-ease in our world include forced labour and modern day slavery, (the ILO's report "2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour" estimates that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour – Muir-Cochrane 2014).

Furthermore, about a third of all women in the EU have experienced either physical or sexual violence since the age of 15, according to a survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights – which amounts to 62 million women (Bell, 2014).

If there are more people graduating from higher education, if there are record amounts spent on research, and there is more literature and books available than ever before ...

  • Why then is our world in such a dire state?
  • Why are we sicker than before?
  • Why have forced labour and slavery not been abolished?
  • Why are physical and sexual violence still rife?

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The higher and lower mind

The higher mind always constructs expression from the impulses of the heart whereas the lower mind comes from intelligence that holds things that have come from outside of us.

We have an enormous out-pouring of intelligence proliferated in various forms in our higher education system, but what is it missing, if all of that intelligence is not truly answering the world's great ills?

  • Has higher education been running in an insular way that does not benefit the local community or humanity?
  • Has it lost its sense of true purpose?

Given the state of our world, it is a fact that we need higher education and the wider education sector to play its role in what humanity needs right now. But the way the system currently operates needs to change in order to fulfil its part of the answer.

What if we made educational institutions about people, first? And what if our programmes in higher education brought focus to what was needed in the world, and not to insular or personal interest?

We can no longer ignore:

modern day slavery / cybercrime / abuse of women / illness and disease / poverty / corruption / insolvency / war / terrorism / drug and substance addiction / suicide and self harm / bullying / and the many other daily atrocities we read about in our newspapers

What if we all pulled together across the globe to understand what is going on, using our educational institutions and all those who study in them for that common purpose? Is not the purpose of higher education to serve everyone in our world so that we can make the changes that are needed?

Education, and in this case higher education, is ours – it belongs to all of us. It’s time to streamline the purpose of higher education and work towards this together as one. We have an enormous resource of talent and capacity within the higher education sector for humanity to draw upon: with ‘all hands on deck’ through education and research studies, we could begin to address some of the world’s deepest and most difficult problems.


Bell, B. (2014) Violence against women: One-third of EU women affected - survey. BBC News. 5th March.
Boroush, M, (2008) National Science Foundation, USA. August. Retrieved from
Boseley, S. (2014) Alcohol, smoking and obesity fuel 'alarming' global cancer surge. The Guardian. Tuesday 4th February
Kelly, U. McLellan, D. And McNicoll, I. (2009) The impact of universities on the UK economy: fourth report. Universities UK Publication. Retrieved from 2009/11/economicimpact4full.pdf
Muir-Cochrane, I. (2014) Are there really 21 million slaves worldwide? 10th March, BBC News.
National Centre for Educational Statistics, Institute for Educational Sciences, USA.

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