The purpose of higher education

31 May
University student

Doesn't she just look passionate and enthralled?

Meet Jan, a 19-year-old young woman, who has just started a three-year undergraduate degree in psychology at a West Australian University. She’s excited about the subject and about the opportunities for new friendships. She’s also nervous and unsure about her abilities to cope with the high demands of higher education, including writing essays, conducting literature research and dealing with the dreaded but compulsory field of inferential statistics. She also feels rather overwhelmed by the amount of text she is supposed to read in just 4 short months, and wonders how she will ever achieve all of this. However, she is committed to this subject, she wants to become a psychologist, help people in need, and she’s very interested in understanding how people think and why they do what they do.

If this sounds familiar to you, try to remember the time when you were in Jan’s shoes. How enthusiastic were you about your studies? How energised did you feel each morning as you got out of bed, thinking about the lectures you had scheduled to attend that day? How curious did you feel as you delved into your textbooks, especially those without any pictures in them? Have you ever experienced academic burn-out, and how did it affect your performance?

When I speak to my fellow students, I often ask them about what motivates them to keep studying despite the multitude of challenges. Almost universally, I see no passion for the subject they once may have cared for. Instead I see a focus on obtaining grades, and obsessing with what these grades mean for them as a person and for their future career. I see students who cram for exams, certain that their ultimate achievement as a student is to receive the highest possible mark. I see fatigue, a great deal of emotional, psychological and physical fatigue that sometimes strains their relationships and can lead to burn-out and attrition.

Despite these challenges, most of the students I know achieve extraordinarily well, getting High Distinctions and honours, and most of the time get much higher grades than me. The question is, are they still enthusiastic about what they learned last year, or 2 years ago? Do they go back to re-read some journal articles or textbooks they enjoyed? Do they continue to perform statistical analyses on their data a whole year after submitting their honours thesis? In other words, did their study lead to true learning and personal growth, and are they more dedicated to learning today than they were last year? Has their true potential been reached, or have there been some constraints, possibly systemic constraints, on their growth?

Even more importantly: are self-actualisation and vitality measured by Universities? Should they be? Can we assume that all students who receive an undergraduate degree have obtained the maximum possible benefits from their three years of dedicated study, just because they got good grades and met all the requirements? What should we assume about those who fail or drop out? Did they fail, or did the system fail them? Maybe we shouldn’t assume anything, but that is a tough call in the context of Australian higher education.

Perhaps we shouldn’t assume either that the purpose of higher education is to educate, promote personal growth, and stimulate creativity and natural curiosity. Perhaps it has become something else, something used for other, less lofty purposes.

If that’s the case, then I’m going to do something about it. My honours thesis was the first step.


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2 responses to “The purpose of higher education

  1. Brian Hoover

    June 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    The purpose of higher education is to avoid getting a job.

  2. nicolasconnault

    June 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    You’re right Brian, it’s to avoid working. Because we all know that students just twiddle their thumbs all day while they wait for their graduation date. PhD students are even worse: they get paid for doing nothing!


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