Towards New Purposes for Universities

Words by Christopher Cunningham.

Note from the author: Ideas discussed in this blog post represent a digest from my forthcoming book, which has the working title: The Neoliberal Meritocracy of Higher Education in England: Questioning a University’s Purpose through a Study of Widening Participation. 



In analysing the relationship between social mobility and widening participation in higher education in England I have become aware of the pressing need to discuss and debate the purposes of universities. I conceptualise the current funding crises facing institutions as being a feature of the post-Augar crossroads, which alongside the prospect of job losses and a reduction in workers’ rights, threatens to further marginalise arts and humanities subjects, curtail academic freedom, impose government control over universities, and enhance the social and economic inequalities of British society.

To help build discussion about new purposes for universities I apply a tripartite perspective that considers how ideas of individual success, national prosperity, and democratic citizenship relate with higher education policy and practice. I debate a university’s purpose by detailing how these perspectives have become unbalanced through the imposition of a marketized model and argue that state legitimacy depends upon a reimagining of higher education, suggesting that the current crossroads signals a need for dialogue.

I aim to contribute to this dialogue by proposing a vision for universities that is underpinned by the ethos of championing the perspective of democratic citizenship: the Liberal Arts Civic University model.       


Scholars have long debated and helped to set the narrative about the purpose of universities. From the lectures of John Henry Newman during the 1850s, which present the idea of a university to advocate liberal education that is broad in scope and devoid of attachment to any specific mode of training, to the more contemporary debates from writers such as Stefan Collini, who in 2012 defended the notion of higher education as being a public good by questioning what are universities for? More recently, there has been commentary in national media that  calls for ‘honest debate about what – and who – higher education is really for’. My research into the relationship of widening participation and narratives of social mobility documents the ways in which higher education in England has become politicised in recent decades, which suggests that there is renewed need to question the purpose of a university. 

In 2012, tuition fees in England had just risen to £9,000 per year for ‘home’ students. This rise in tuition was a result of recommendations from the Browne Report of 2010, which as John Holmwood observes:

was conspicuous by the absence of any discussion of the wider values of higher education, reducing it instead to a matter of an individual’s private investment in human capital, or its benefits for economic growth.

A Tripartite Perspective 

It was around the time of the Browne Report that the correlation of higher education participation with a political narrative of social mobility gathered momentum. This narrative incentivises the ‘private investment in human capital’ highlighted by Holmwood. It recognises the expanse of inequality while simultaneously positioning economic growth as being an individual pursuit. I conceptualise this ‘private investment’ in terms of individual success; one of three perspectives through which I analyse the purpose of a university. 

Ideas of national prosperity in relation to higher education have mutated over time, from the Robbins Report of 1963 to the Augar Review of 2019. For Browne in 2010 they were strongly aligned to the empty signifier of ‘social mobility’, and when, in 2016, the Government released its White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, there was little distinction between goals of national prosperity and ideas of individual success; rather they became intertwined by a notion of economic growth which presumes that general upliftment avoids the need to address inequality.

This individual success/national prosperity binding that became enshrined within a political narrative of social mobility worked to overshadow a  third perspective  – that of democratic citizenship – which can be traced back to educationalists such as John Dewey, and a century later, influenced the Committee on Higher Education who produced  the Robbins Report. 

Emboldening WP and Restructuring HE

The contemporary overshadowing of democratic citizenship by individual success and national prosperity was brought about, in large part, by the same ideology that led to the centralisation of the marketized ‘sector’ of higher education through the creation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Office for Students (OfS) that occurred following the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. 

The OfS, with its regulatory powers, ensures that higher education ‘providers’ in England are committed to widening participation. By tying an institution’s ability to charge maximum tuition fees with having an agreed Access and Participation Plan (APP), the OfS directs the policy and practice of universities and measures their effectiveness of meeting the metrics of student ‘Access, Success, and Progression’. Widening participation operates through the targeting of ‘disadvantaged students’, incentivising them to invest in higher education by promoting ideas of aspiration that are underpinned by neoliberal meritocracy (Littler) . This process helps to fulfil the ‘social mobility’ agenda set by Government and policed by the OfS.        

Yet, while the narrative of social mobility has been successful in terms of meeting its aims of expanding the higher education participation rates of ‘disadvantaged students’, the social and economic inequalities of British society have remained unchanged, with many people continuing to live in poverty. In 2022, the Social Mobility Commission offered a ‘fresh approach to social mobility’, reimagining what the term means and reconceptualising how it should be measured. Within this reimagining, the relationship with higher education becomes reevaluated:

We have, over the last generation, had too much focus on a one size fits all model for social mobility, which tends to consider higher education expansion as the key means of improving opportunity.    

The Social Mobility Commission focuses on the failure of higher education to improve opportunity, rather than on the structural inequalities that mean an improvement of opportunity through education is largely unachievable for most. Elite positions in British society are largely reserved for those with the right connections, and as studies in the US have shown, precarious employment systems that have been gathering pace since the 1970s, have resulted in a decline of upward mobility to the middle classes, which has led to greater polarisation and distinction between Good Jobs, Bad Jobs. With institutions of higher education held responsible for ensuring ‘progression’ for ‘disadvantaged students’, labour market precarity and instability can in turn serve as justification for the delegitimization of certain types of knowledge, as the benefits of education become showcased through the ubiquitous logic of methodological individualism and positivism represented through surveys such as Graduate Outcomes. 

This directs attention away from structural inequalities by apportioning blame towards higher education and its failure to improve social mobility. This sentiment is  reflected in the Augar Review of 2019: 

The proposals outlined above are intended to build more balanced incentives into the funding system and, alongside greater scrutiny of university data, recruiting practices and earnings returns, reduce the volume of low value provision. However, there is still a risk that some HEIs will continue to recruit too many students who will not benefit from a degree and so we have considered harder-edged options. These would undoubtedly be unpopular in the sector, where the connection between going to university and achieving social mobility has become something of an unquestioned – although we believe questionable – mantra.

The Post-Augar Crossroads of HE

Key tenets from Augar’s Review of Post-18 Education and Funding have since been brandished by government ministers, whose political rhetoric positions universities as bearers of low value degrees that fail to deliver social mobility, which, they argue, results in a need to redirect widening participation away from universities and towards vocational learning. This strategy blames universities and the education that they offer, and directs attention away from civic stratification, while at the same time reinforcing it by denying disadvantaged students the opportunity to engage with pedagogy that can foster the skills needed for active participation within a democratic society. 

Moreover, this post-Augar shift works to tackle the two major concerns of the Review –  labour shortages, which in the period of March – May of 2022  rose to a new record of 1,300,000 vacancies and the cost of outstanding student loans, which at the end of March 2023 had reached £206 billion. In February 2022, the Higher and Further Education Minister Michele Donelan announced a range of policy measures, which included Degree Apprenticeships and  adjustments to ways in which student loans are repaid, ‘just as the Augar Report recommended’. Addressing these two major concerns of the Review can be seen as an attempt to avoid a legitimation crisis of the state. And with the purpose of a university becoming politically positioned, there arises a threat of reduced access to the kinds of education that can foster democratic citizenship. As the CDBU response to the Augar review explains:

The documentation accompanying the consultation talks of ‘good outcomes’ but seems to assume that such outcomes are a matter of individual graduates securing high-earning (‘high-skilled’) employment. There is no consideration of what would count as a good outcome for society overall. We are disappointed that the Government appears not to recognise the valuable roles which graduates play in areas of civic life such as the public services and the arts and the less visible but well-attested social and public benefits of a UK higher education, including public citizenship, better health profiles, self-sufficiency, public spiritedness and the understanding and celebration of our heritage in all its diversity.    

As the perspective of individual success overshadows democratic citizenship, the inequalities which underpin national prosperity are strengthened and maintained. In other words, as the polarised and precarious labour market undermines attempts of social mobility that are conceptualised in terms of individual prosperity, the ways in which knowledge is valued becomes altered. This is reflected in the Department for Education’s Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset, which maps the earnings of graduates as a method for determining the impact of educational pathways. This methodology does not consider inequalities within the labour market or the benefits of education which cannot be measured through economics, including the benefits of education to society overall.    

Although the points raised above are reason enough to debate the purpose of a university, the recent call in national media has perhaps more obvious reasons – it is a response to the current funding crisis that many institutions are facing. The wheels set in motion by the Augar Review have worked to destabilise the marketized model of UK higher education. The growth model of marketisation was designed, in part, to sell ‘disadvantaged young learners’ dreams of ‘social mobility’ by instilling ideologies of aspiration in their minds; this model was already unsustainable in the long term, regardless of Augar’s tinkering – time is revelatory when it comes to visions of investment that are built upon false promises.  

The perspective that the purpose of a university is about the ideals of individual success appears to have run its course. There are now two logical options: 1) Reinvigorate the individual success perspective by redirecting education (which is the approach that government ministers and policy makers are pushing for); or, 2) Rebalance the ideals of democratic citizenship (which is the approach that I, and others, are campaigning for).     

Rebalancing the Ideals of Democratic Citizenship 

It is widely recognised by academics that democracy needs the humanities, and that neoliberalism’s attack on democracy involves a strategy that methodically undermines the value of such subject areas. The devaluing of the arts and humanities is in no way unique to the English or British context of higher education. However, what is specific to the UK situation when it comes to discussions of democracy, is its history of class stratification, which was reinforced by the education institutions in the nineteenth century. Systems of class have continued to dominate the make-up of British society, with education being the main vector of privilege. While the opening-up of higher education during the Robbins era did generate huge impact in terms of democratising society, the persistence of subaltern education offers legitimation for social and economic hierarchies, with more recent attempts of widening participation in higher education, which have largely been marketed on the premise of addressing this class inequality through individual investment exacerbating inequalities further as students become indebted to study. 

This calls for a more radical approach to fostering democracy through higher education participation. One such example of this can be seen in the work of scholars at my own university, Essex, who created a programme called Democracy in Action. This practice-based module collaborates with Citizens UK to teach students about community organising, encouraging them to articulate emotions and actively engage with social issues that matter most to them and their local community. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of this programme is its ability to harness a key principle from the individual success perspective – employability – and steer it towards the perspective of democratic citizenship: 

Through Democracy in Action we wanted to push the boundaries of work-based learning beyond traditional conceptions of employability, shifting them into the realm of community-based and citizen-based learning so as to enhance student’s transformative learning experience. For us this meant not only teaching community organising in the classroom setting, but also taking that learning outside the classroom and into the community, so that students can work together to have an impact on the community and themselves as organisers and future leaders.           

Such programmes demonstrate that even amidst the challenges facing universities, there remains room for manoeuvre that can allow key principles of democratic citizenship to be incorporated into pragmatic pedagogy. These manoeuvres can serve as inspiration within the debate around a university’s purpose post-Augar.   

The Liberal Arts Civic University Model

In the spirit of pragmatic pedagogy, I believe that there is need for a new university model that can safeguard national prosperity, which as the work of Habermas indicates, is instrumental in terms of helping to ensure state legitimacy . The two major concerns raised by Augar, that is, the cost of education to the Treasury and labour market demands, are important factors to consider when imagining this new model. The first of these concerns is already in the process of being addressed through the restructuring of the student loan system, with the introduction of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) likely to influence in the coming years the ways in which students engage with universities. This restructuring can be seen as part of a broader reimagining within the marketized sector of higher education, where consumers themselves have begun to question is university really worth it? And with regards to the second concern, the push towards Degree Apprenticeships is already underway, with many institutions adjusting their provision accordingly. But as the CDBU response to the Augar Review highlighted, a reimagining of a university’s purpose that does not consider the social and public benefits is short sighted at best. Without focusing on the potential that universities can bring to civic life in its broader sense, there is  a risk that the marketized model of higher education will remain just as economically unviable in the long-term, regardless of any politicised value-framing of knowledge. Furthermore, this approach, in directing attention away from the health benefits associated with learning, alongside the notions of self-sufficiency and public spiritedness that can often be fostered by it, means that the benefits of higher education that have traditionally been offered will become largely inaccessible, which in turn threatens to enhance social and economic inequalities further.         

A model of higher education that recognises the importance of relationships for democratic citizenship is needed. As Dewey already proposed, relationships can be found between ‘knowing and doing’, or between ‘intellectual and practical studies’.  These relationships can be built within universities that are rooted in their local community, through active engagement with social issues and by working in partnership with charities, the third sector, and community-based organisations. They can be enhanced by remaining globally focused, in the promotion of liberal arts education that celebrates the arts and humanities and recognises it as being of equal value to vocational learning. The Liberal Arts Civic University model celebrates the fact that, together, different knowledges can help to nurture well-rounded, active, and engaged citizens, ready to tackle both the local and global challenges facing societies today.

Methods for implementing this model could be designed in consideration of campus universities, which, in a logistical sense, are like villages. University campuses incorporate a wide range of occupations including administrators, mechanics, accountants, carpenters, surveyors, ground staff and so on. If these occupations were utilised and students were given the option to study an intensive interdisciplinary programme, consisting of, say, for example, philosophy, biological sciences, plumbing, and customer service in one year, and, say, for example, art history, law, mechanics, and security in another, there is a strong chance that the students will finish their period of education with an improved sense of confidence and the ability to contribute to society in ways which ensure national prosperity. They would gain practical skills that would equip them for the labour market while also becoming inspired to narrow their focus for future learning. By emphasising a compulsory study of arts and humanities subjects, alongside more manual aspects of education, students would be encouraged to question the world in which they live, and their position within it. For a final dissertation project students could produce a piece of work that tackles social issues at a local level by working in partnership with a community-based organisation, which would help students to build the skills needed for democratic citizenship. Simultaneously, the university would strengthen its position as an anchor institution, helping to shape its locality while promoting the work that it does.             

A Post-18 Citizenship Education is worthy of state investment. It offers potential to safeguard national prosperity by realigning ideas of individual success with democratic citizenship. Although The Case for a National Education Service has long been discussed, we are yet to see it come to fruition. The post-Augar crossroads at which UK higher education currently sits presents an opportunity to debate the purpose of a university with the aim of empowering our institutions to take the lead on the ways in which our nation educates its citizenry.

Christopher Cunningham recently completed his PhD in Sociology at the University of Essex. His research uses policy and discourse analysis to explore the relationship between widening participation within English universities and political narratives of social mobility. You can read more about him in our ‘What did university mean to you?‘ stories gallery.