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The one about the Purpose of Higher Education

At the broadest level, institutions do cool stuff for the benefit of society, and in return they get money to do cool stuff and suffer minimal outside interference in so doing.

Alex Usher


In the midst of the current financial crisis gripping UK higher education, the question of purpose looms large. What are universities truly for? Is the soaring cost of a university degree justified by the value it delivers? As tuition fees around the world climb and institutions grapple with funding cuts, this is no longer an abstract philosophical debate, but a pressing concern impacting students, educators, and society as a whole.

We’re being confronted with the very real question of what a university is for. A few common reasons for their existence include:

  • Knowledge transmission: Universities as vessels of accumulated knowledge, passing it down from generation to generation and ensuring its preservation.
  • Skill development: Equipping students with the specific skills and expertise needed for chosen careers, preparing them for the workforce.
  • Personal growth: Fostering intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities, leading to well-rounded individuals and active citizens.
  • Research and innovation: Universities as engines of discovery, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and generating solutions to critical global challenges.

However, it increasingly feels as if knowledge and personal growth are less vital to the higher education project, with a focus on skills development and research (especially research with commercial value) taking a primary position.

This newsletter isn’t going to present an answer to the question of what universities are for, but it’s been on my mind a lot over the past month or so, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve been looking at.


Andreessen, M., & Horowitz, B. (2024, January 15). Crisis in Higher Ed & Why Universities Still Matter with Marc & Ben. a16z podcast.

In this one-on-one conversation, Marc and Ben tackle the university system – what has certainly been a hot topic that’s been dominating the news over the past few months. As Marc states at the top of the episode, universities matter tremendously to our world, but they’re currently in a state of crisis. Together, Ben and Marc take a “structural” look at higher education, delving deep into the twelve functions of the modern university.  They also unpack the numerous challenges that universities face today – student debt and the replication crisis, among them.

They also discuss topics including DEI, student athlete admissions, accreditation, inflation, and much more. As colleges face an existential threat that could have long lasting repercussions, how can we find ways to improve these institutions, while being open to new entrepreneurial opportunities in education?

I enjoyed this conversation but it’s not going to appeal to everyone, given that it’s a conversation between two very wealthy tech entrepreneurs, who have a specific point of view on the issue. However, I do think there’s a lot here that applies to other countries.


Caplan, B. (2019). The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. Princeton University Press.

Despite being immensely popular—and immensely lucrative—education is grossly overrated. In this explosive book, Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students’ skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity—in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee. Learn why students hunt for easy As and casually forget most of what they learn after the final exam, why decades of growing access to education have not resulted in better jobs for the average worker but instead in runaway credential inflation, how employers reward workers for costly schooling they rarely if ever use, and why cutting education spending is the best remedy.

I can’t help but wonder if some of the problems in the UK higher education sector have been driven, in part, by economic arguments like those made by Caplan in this book. And, if I’m completely honest, I find some of his points quite compelling.

See also this 80 000 Hours podcast episode with Caplan, and the Wikipedia article on the book.


The Past and Future of Higher Education. (2016, November 4). The Chronicle of Higher Education; The Chronicle Review.

We wanted to know what keeps people in higher education up at night, to assess the major transformations that have taken place over the past 50 years, and to glimpse the ideas and arguments that might shape the next 50. Here, in a series of charts, we present the results of a survey sent to 1,000 Chronicle subscribers to solicit their views on the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the academic enterprise. Nearly 250 people responded.

A long article consisting mostly of the responses to a series of questions about the past and future of higher education. It includes a wide range of perspectives that certainly provide lots of food for thought.

Note that you need to sign up for a free account with the Chronicle of Higher Education to read the full article.

In Beta podcasts

In case you haven’t seen them yet, we published 2 new In Beta podcasts in January:

Be sure to check them out if you haven’t already.

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