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28 June 2018

The Value of a University Education

Professor Frans Berkhout, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, delivered a lecture on Tuesday evening, 26 June, on ‘The Value of a University Education’.

Professor Frans Berkhout delivers his Inaugural Lecture
Professor Frans Berkhout delivers his Inaugural Lecture

Professor Frans Berkhout, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, delivered a lecture on Tuesday evening, 26 June, on ‘The Value of a University Education’. Professor Berkhout argued that universities should do more both to ensure that their public value to society is recognised and to work in partnership with students as ‘co-producers’ of learning.

Government policy over the past 20 years has promoted the diversification of universities as ‘providers’ in a competitive market place, with policy acting to protect the rights of student consumers. ‘Value for money’ has now become part of the dominant narrative around university degrees, with universities expected to deliver returns to students, the Treasury and state, employers and taxpayers.

Professor Berkhout argued that the private value of universities, to individuals, has been emphasised in current policy debates, above the public good value of higher education to society as a whole.

This thinking, Professor Berkhout suggested, is flawed. Commenting in advance of the lecture, he stated: “Students have always invested a significant amount of time, effort and money in their university education. The current focus on ‘value for money’ only in financial terms now risks missing the substantial wider benefits to individuals - and to society -  of university study.”

Gaining a university education does provide substantive personal benefits, including specific skills and capabilities, social networks that may be beneficial throughout life and a ‘graduate premium’ in terms of additional lifetime earnings. “It is [also] the place where many people grow up”, and transition safely into adulthood, Professor Berkhout argued.

However, there is also a ‘paradox of participation’: the increase in earnings and other benefits that accrue through attending university mean that higher rates of participation in higher education are associated with growing costs to those who ‘miss out’. Rather than as engines of social change and advancement, as they should be, universities have come to be treated as divisive and exclusionary in policy debates and in wider society.

Professor Berkhout argued that universities play a major role in expanding opportunity for individuals and in social change, exposing students to different cultures and world-views as the most international organisations in British society. But he didn’t shy away from calling on universities to do more to diversify: recognising that universities often don’t adequately reflect an equal distribution of talent, wherever it is found in society.

Professor Berkhout was clear that universities must engage collectively in the public debate about their purpose. They must work with students to co-design curricula, reimagining themselves as ‘communities of learners’, with a commitment to development, more individualised guidance and greater feedback. Ultimately, it is up to an individual student to make the most of their time at university and the opportunities that it provides, but universities can work as co-collaborators on the student journey, providing enhanced guidance and encouragement to help students towards self-fulfilment.

At a time when universities in England are coming under increasing pressure to justify the £9,250 cost of undergraduate tuition fees for Home UK students, Professor Berkhout argued that most fundamentally, universities must advocate for a more balanced funding model, reflecting both the public and private benefits of higher education. He argued that funding has swung too far towards students: Government should commit to funding the public good of universities, with a sustainable future funding model taking a ‘middle ground’ between student and Government financial commitments.

Professor Berkhout’s lecture was delivered as part of the 2017-18 season of ‘Inaugural Lectures’ in the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy; a series of high-profile public lectures that showcase current research and debates across social science and policy.

An audio recording of the lecture is available on Sound Cloud.

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Frans Berkhout

Assistant Principal (King’s Climate & Sustainability)