Commentary on A Higher Calling for Higher Education
First of all, congratulations to Cristina Escrigas for her very interesting and thought-provoking essay. It is very well written and structured. There are so many important issues in the essay, and I would like to react to just a few of them.
My first point is about the definition of higher education. Unlike the primary and secondary school sectors, higher education is not homogeneous and covers a range of institutions with different missions and objectives. In her introduction, Escrigas interchanges between higher education and universities. Are the issues in the essay pertinent to universities only, or are they applicable to the whole sector? Tertiary education is often used to cover an even broader spectrum of postsecondary education. Shouldn’t the higher calling be also relevant to the tertiary education sector generally?
This takes me to my second point. I feel that the need to imbue an ethos of justice, peace, and sustainability in students should also be extended to secondary education and even primary education. The three to four years in higher education is perhaps too short a period to bring about a change in the mindset of students, and the eleven to twelve years of schooling may be more fertile ground. For example, it has been found that sensitizing school children to sustainability issues helps them to bring about positive lifestyle changes in their homes. So how can HEIs reach “down” to the other sectors to bring about the change? Teacher training is an obvious avenue and is already being used, but there are many other ways in which HEIs can engage with secondary schools.
As Escrigas notes, “Money, which is at most an intermediate goal in achieving happiness, has become for many the final, unquestioned goal of human activity.” Indeed, this thirst for money has led to widespread fraud and corruption in all spheres of human activity—health, education, sports, politics, religion, etc.—and higher education is no exception. It seems that corruption has become a social disease—some have referred to it as cancer—that higher education is unable to cure because it is itself infected with it. In recent years, evidence of corruption in higher education all over the world (Australia, Asia, Africa, America, Europe) has surfaced that is seriously threatening the sector’s credibility. Since higher education institutions “train the professionals who will attain positions of substantial—even extraordinary—influence in society,” then it must rid itself of this scourge. This is a mammoth task and requires a multi-pronged approach at national, regional and international levels.
The debate on whether higher education is a public or private good is indeed a hot one. In my view, higher education is a public good, irrespective of whether the source of funding is public or private, and whether or not students pay tuition fees. Governments, especially those of developing countries, will never be able to fully fund higher education provision because of the pressing demands from other public sectors, and will inevitably have to rely on private providers. But because of the importance of higher education to society, a government has the responsibility to plan, oversee, and regulate the sector even if it does not fully fund it, just as HEIs have the responsibility to be accountable to the government even if they do not receive funds from it. This leads us to the other debate on for-profit and not-for-profit private institutions. The latter do make profits, but they plough them back into the institutions, whereas the former distribute their profits to their shareholders. In response to critics of for-profit higher education, proponents argue that no private organization, other than a religious or philanthropic one, will invest in higher education unless it receives a reasonable return on its investment. Agreed, as long as the return is “reasonable,” which is where accountability comes in. Just as importantly, a for-profit provider must ensure that the institution operates as a higher education one—with its ethos, values, and academic structure—and not as a purely commercial enterprise.
I fully agree that “community-university engagement is critically important for identifying and solving problems of common people in all societies.” Yet this aspect of the third mission of higher education rarely gets the attention and support it deserves, as compared to the other two missions of teaching and research, or it often gets overshadowed by university-industry linkages, consultancy, knowledge transfer from research, innovation, etc. What is needed is for the university to link up with society at all levels to provide support, to understand community challenges, to capture indigenous knowledge, etc., so that both society and university benefit. This is particularly important for developing countries. And the students can be an inestimable resource for undertaking university-community engagement. But this requires funds and acknowledgement: the university budget hardly makes provision for community engagement; in faculty promotion, it hardly carries any weight; not all quality assurance agencies place emphasis on this aspect of university’s third mission; and global rankings of universities totally ignore it. There is an urgent need for revalorization of community engagement if the sort of transformation that Escrigas is talking about is to take place.
My final point is with regard to “glocality,” that is, being relevant locally and responsible globally. The tragedy is that local relevance of higher education seems to have been thrown overboard in developing countries, from the time in the past when models from the North were used to set up local public HEIs, to the present when cross-border higher education, mostly from the North, provides a type of education that may not be appropriate locally. There cannot be one model that fits all in higher education. In developing countries, HEIs have a duty first to serve their local community, society, and region in the most appropriate way, taking local culture and conditions into consideration and without trying to imitate what prevails in the North. Fitness for purpose should always be the guiding principle for HEIs. Sustainability challenges are global, but the response to them surely would vary according to the country and region. HEIs in developing countries need to be conscious of this and not, for example, pointlessly aim to be globally ranked.
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