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Past Program

Jul 12 - Jul 19, 2003

The Cultural, Civic, and Economic Purposes of Higher Education

Session 411

Abstract

was the result of a dual process of industrialization and democratization; which required the cultivation of a more highly skilled workforce and of socially mobile citizens. Higher education has been and continues to be a prime agent of shaping the contemporary societies in which we live.

 

This Salzburg Seminar session on higher education will explore the cultural, civic and economic conditions and attitudes that affect the entwining between the university and other sectors of the society. The session will concentrate on three areas which are closely tied into higher education.

 

The Economic Dimension: Science and technology have become essential factors of a country’s economic performance and international competitiveness. Consequently, the value of higher education in the production of the wealth of nations is widely undisputed. Countries as different as Ireland, China or some of the Arabian countries have enormously invested in their school systems (K-12), as well as in higher education, and will continue to do so because they consider this investment to be the most promising strategy for long-term dividend. As Tony Blair put it, “Education is the best economic policy there is for a modern economy.” However, focusing entirely on an economic rationale may deprive universities of their role as places of free and disinterested inquiry, of humanistic scholarship, and of “thinking the unthinkable”.

 

The Cultural Dimension: Despite their universalistic claims and aspirations, universities have always been culturally embedded institutions. Almost all universities are “place specific”. By serving as creators and curators of national identity, they acquired influence, reputation and public support. The current debates about the opportunities and the threats of globalization pose new challenges to universities and the way they define their cultural mission: Do they embrace the values of a transnational and multicultural citizenry which shares a common feeling of commitment to social justice and solidarity in an emergent world society; or do they consider themselves to be custodians of a local culture, ensuring its distinctiveness and integrity and trying to preserve it against what is often being seen as the hegemonic Western culture?

 

The Civic Dimension: Throughout the last century, the growing importance of higher education was closely linked to its role as a powerful catalyst of social transformation and democratic participation of larger segments of the society. In many, mainly Western countries, universities place a strong emphasis on the civic mission of higher education (exemplified, for instance, in the liberal arts curriculum) aimed at strengthening the social fabric of the society/community, especially in the role of preparing future generations of societal leadership. This contrasts with the tendency, especially in the developing world, to see universities predominantly as engines of economic growth. These different expectations determine different governmental attitudes toward universities and different funding priorities. What is the legitimate role of higher education in fostering civic engagement and political vigilance?