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The Purpose of Education

  • 23 July 2021
  • By Brendan Coulson

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 a course should be publicised and understood by all students before they enrol on to it

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.

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  1. Cath Brown says:

    There is a difference between feeling that one of the purposes of higher education can be to help students go into an occupation of their choosing (it doesn’t have to be a particularly well paid one – money isn’t everything in terms of job and life satisfaction) and suggesting courses should be vocationally aligned

    People change job throughout their lives. People often have no realistic idea when starting HE what occupation they want to follow. A less specific choice can be an awful lot more flexible.

    To take a personal example, as someone who was first in extended family to go to HE – there is no way on earth I’d have studied a course that related to what I’ve actually spent much of my life doing because when I was 17 I didn’t think I wanted to do that! However my non-vocational, chosen entirely for reasons of academic interest degree did allow me the freedom to make that choice or others, and equipped me perfectly well to do so because it was rigorous and challenging.

    And the education minister – by virtue of being in that position – should not just be considering his own view of what education is for. He should be encompassing other perspectives too.

  2. albert wright says:

    Very refreshing comments from Brendan.

    The Education Secretary’s definition is far too narrow by linking it directly (and only?) to working life.

    Education should involve and promote diversity of thought.

    A university education should help develop each unique individual to grow as a human being and become a better citizen of the world.

    The education should include training in critical and social thinking.

    It is important for new students to know in advance what the ethos of the institution is all about and more specifically what the advertised course is seeking to achieve.

    This information could also be used by Government to help decide the allocation of resources to individual institutions to provide the right balance for the nation.

  3. Cath Brown says:

    How would you say you can legitimately include “social thinking” in, say, a maths degree without it being an obvious “bolt-on”?

    Obviously areas such as statistics can (and IMO should) be applied to realistic contexts; this can often be very helpful in encouraging students to treat official figures and the way they are reported with appropriate caution. But finding it hard to see how “social thinking” fits

  4. Interesting reading Brendan, but I fundamentally disagree with you – though I too find Freire’s work inspiring. Freire saw education as emancipatory and I do too, though in a different way. For Freire, in a particular context at a particular time, education represented the potential for freedom from oppression, though he understood the tendency for the oppressed to become oppressors themselves (shades of Animal Farm). To me, education brings freedom – but what sort of freedom? For us in the privileged West it is freedom to choose: to choose what to study and how, to choose whether to study for the sheer joy of learning, or with vocational ends in mind: to choose what sort of career will be fulfilling. It is education which opens the doors to these choices.
    Gavin Williamson is not wrong to think that education gives people the skills they need to work, but he is entirely incorrect when he describes this as the purpose of education. He would do well to look at the national curriculum, for which he is responsible. Borrowing from Matthew Arnold, a Victorian school inspector (surely Gavin must approve?), it aspires to introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said. There are dangers in pursuing this argument, but nonetheless it points towards a much more uplifting and eye-opening purpose than a dreary utilitarian justification that is surely worthy of Grandgrind–to cite another Victorian educationalist!

  5. Brendan Coulson says:

    Thank you Chris, if in deed that is what students want to pursue, then I do believe that is their choice, like I said we live in a democracy, but we should simply make the purpose of education of a particular course clear to them before they enrol to it. After all, we wouldn’t want to mislead students in anyway.

  6. A basic category mistake in this piece between the logical and contingent. The purpose of education is education. Any contingent consequences of education- radical, social or therapeutic are irrelevant. Unless, of course, you want to do something other than educate.

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