This blog was kindly contributed by Brendan Coulson, Education Project Start-Up Lead at Nottingham Trent University.
The purpose of education is a widely debated topic across the education system. The Education Secretary stated at the HEPI Annual conference that:
We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills that will lead to a fulfilling working life.
Many academics were quick to criticise these comments and referred to the Education Secretary’s remarks as painting education as a production line creating cogs in the machinery of the economy.
Instead, some believe that the purpose of education is to provide opportunities for individuals to become active and critical makers of change, which should not be occupationally framed.
Personally, having originated from a very working-class background, where studying at a university was only a fantasy, I have witnessed the social, economic and academic benefits from studying a degree that had been aligned to an occupational discipline.
I believe that educators have a responsibility to ensure that courses provide opportunities for students to pursue a prosperous career and to climb the social mobility ladder.
After all, how can students become critical agents of change from sitting outside of a system? I cannot understand why one position for the purpose of education needs to be exclusive of the other.
The truth is that the Education Secretary was correct in his statement because that is his position on the purpose of education.
I take the position that the best courses are those that provide occupational alignment and provide the space for students to develop their criticality, curiosity and to reimagine the world around them. I am proud that I am currently working at a university to develop Higher Technical Qualifications that align to this purpose.
Many academics quote Paulo Freire who famously wrote the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, to defend their position on not aligning courses to an occupational pathway.
Richard Schaull, in his foreword to Freire stated that the purpose of education is to enable people to ‘deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.’
I am not sure how anyone can do this without being an active participant in that world. Freire studied an occupationally focused degree at a Law School, he later worked as a Secondary School teacher. The point here is that Freire was in the system; his education enabled him to be a ‘cog in the machinery’ of the economy. This put him in a position to argue for change in that machinery.
So back to the purpose of education, we live in a democratic society, therefore the purpose of education is unique to the individual that pursues it. Hence, why in my earlier point I said that the Education Secretary is correct. He is correct because this is his own unique purpose for education.
For some, the purpose of education is to study for the enjoyment of learning, or to pursue a passion. For others, it will be for developing occupationally focused skills as well as educational fulfilment.
The purpose of education cannot be answered by any one group of academics or politicians. Therefore, educational institutions should ensure that they are clear on their students’ previous learning journey and the pathways that their courses could lead them to. This is vital to inform the content of a programme and more importantly the purpose of education it fulfils.
The purpose of a course should be publicised and understood by all students before they enrol on to it. Students can make an informed choice on whether a course will meet their individual view on the purpose of education.
If this is not made clear, there is a risk that one’s purpose of education is not realised and instead of igniting a passion for lifelong learning, it may be the reason why they do not become critical agents of change.