The Evolving Discourse of the Purpose of Higher Education: The Rhetoric of Higher Education Reform

The Evolving Discourse of the Purpose of Higher Education: The Rhetoric of Higher Education Reform

Mary Runté (University of Lethbridge Alberta, Canada) and Robert Runté (University of Lethbridge Alberta, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0672-0.ch021
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Abstract

A brief historical overview of the evolution of the public discourse of the purpose of higher education is undertaken to provide context for current debates over investment in, and reform of, post-secondary education. Four separate discourses are identified: higher education for enlightenment, to develop human capital, as manpower management, and as consumerism. The dominant discourse of the purpose of higher education is shown to have changed from learning for its own sake to an emphasis on manpower planning and consumerism. The separate assumptions and implications of these distinct discourses are often confabulated with little apparent awareness of the contradictory nature of rhetoric drawn from more than one discourse at a time. The authors provide a simple analytical framework to cut through the confusion.
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Four Discourses Of Higher Education

The emergence of the modern university as a publicly funded institution was first predicated upon enlightenment ideals. A discourse of education as investment in human capital then developed in competition to this ideal. This human capital discourse was dominant during the explosive expansion of higher education in the post-war era, but became subject to further refinement the early 1980s. The emergence of these two new discourses was predicated on the assumption that only targeted investment based on a measurable benefit to the economy justified expenditures from the public purse. Categorized by their fundamental characteristics and presented in the order in which they became dominant, they are the discourses of enlightenment, human capital, manpower and consumerism.

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