The purpose of higher education is a highly
debated subject, whether it be the individual student or society being
discussed. The oldest university in the UK, according to records found dating
back to 1096, is the University of Oxford. There are now 162, UK Council funded,
higher education institutions in the UK (Universities
UK, 2016). Historian Collini stated that universities are “institutions devoted
to extending and deepening human understanding.” (Swain,2011) however many
people disagree with this and have the view that they simply exist for economic
gain alone. There are many economic factors surrounding higher education that
are debated, and this is usually because the economic side is often seen as a
problem area, within these types of institutions. Other purposes of higher education
are discussed, such as the need for a skilled workforce in the UK and the need
for in-depth research, on topics that
society are concerned about, and need answers for.

Society
benefits economically from higher education in a variety of ways. In 2014 to
2015 the sector, as a whole, made up 1.2% of GDP in the UK (£21.5 billion) and
contributed to 940,000 jobs (Universities UK, 2016). This clearly shows higher
education has a huge positive impact on the UK’s economy, however, this does come with a large number of expenses. In 2015 to 2016 the
“total operating expenditure, by the sector, was £33 billion” (Universities UK,
2016). The highest expense by far being that of teaching fees, which is what
you would expect. Research has shown that a person without a degree can earn up to £12,000 less, per year, compared to
someone with a degree. This can equal to around £500,000 less throughout their
working life (Anderson, 2015). There are drawbacks economically that come with getting a degree and one of the major disadvantages is the debt that graduates are faced
with. Student loans are not to be paid back until the graduate is earning over
£21,000 a year, however, these debts can sometimes total up to £60,000 (Pells,
2017) which can put a lot of people off choosing the path of university study.In
fact, it has been proven that “poorer students aren’t applying to university
because of fears of high debts” (Callender,2017). As a result, this, therefore,
means that the economic potential of universities is not being fulfilled, as
not every person who wants to go to university is going. Another major impact on
the UK’s economy, as a result of higher education, is that of international
students. In 2014 to 2015 around 200,000 jobs were supported through the
spending of international students (Univeristies UK, 2017). Their spending on
food, retail, transport, and leisure, among other things, amounted to £5.4
billion in 2014 to 2015 (Univeristies UK, 2017) showing that having
international students, within society, has economic advantages. Not only do
the international students themselves, generate income for the UK but the
expenditure of their family and friends who come to visit them do too(Univeristies
UK, 2017). It is not just international students that are generating revenue through
their spending, it is all students in general. According to a report by Nef Consulting
“Student spending supported £80bn of UK economic output” this is a huge share
of the overall output as it is almost a third of total contribution (Nef
consulting, 2013). Overall, universities impact the UK’s economy in a number of
different ways. Whether it be directly through student loans and tuition fees
or through the students individual spending, it all has a substantial impact on
the economy. The purpose of higher education, as a whole, is not solely for
economic gain, but however, there is a lot of revenue to be made within the
local areas surrounding universities and this all helps to boost the UK
economy. Universities also benefit and affect society in many different ways as
they help to make society better and help to fit the needs of society.

One major way that higher education helps to fit the needs of society is
through meeting local skill needs, this can be seen as one of the purposes of
higher education. In the UK there is currently a skills shortage for highly
skilled workers, of around 8% (Universities UK, 2017). By advertising degree
courses in these skill areas, this may result in more people choosing to study
these topics and therefore creating the workforce the UK needs. However,
retention of students needs to become a focus too, this is because a lot of
students do not finish their degrees, 82,000 students dropped out in 2009 alone
(Clark, 2012), and this results in gaps in highly skilled areas.This can,
therefore, worsen the shortage. If more support is given and made available
this could be handled and reduced. For the student themselves, choosing which
course to take is very difficult. Each course will enable the student to gain
general skills as well as more specific skills. This can cause some issues as
the more specific skills are sometimes too job specific and therefore moving
between occupations and even industries, once graduated, can prove to be
difficult. This can, a lot of the time, end in students choosing the ‘wrong’
courses and adding further to the skills shortage. If universities and business
work together more closely they could decipher what exactly is in short supply
and build on these areas. Wanting to go to university and into higher education
in the first place often shows something about the personality of a person.
Students tend to be more ambitious and seem to want to succeed, more than
others.This means that once these students graduate and get a job, that they
are likely to be more motivated than others who do not have a degree. However,
this is not always the case and sometimes students go to university for the social
aspect of student life and have little motivation for success. Getting the
right people, with the right mindset, to gain the skills that the UK is in
short supply of, is one of the main purposes of higher education. By going to
university the student themselves will have to interact and work with people
from all backgrounds, cultures, and walks of life. This can develop them into
better people and it allows them to improve their understanding of others. According
to Universities UK, when UK students were asked about international students 76%
reported: “that they now have a better worldview from studying alongside their
international counterparts”.Not only does it improve the person, it also allows
people to create friendships and networks with other students and companies
throughout their study, that could be beneficial to them in the future. These things
allow graduates to become more skilled as people and often means they can bring
new and innovative ideas and questions to their line of work, in the future.
This, in turn, increases the skills of the UK workforce and benefits society in
many different ways. These highly skilled students can also go on to make a
huge impact on research done by universities and by the businesses they go on
to work for.

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Research carried out by universities, in the UK, is often seen as one of
the main purposes of higher education. Universities within the UK have been
able to research areas that have created very “high-profile success
stories”(Universities UK, ND). Developing IVF and looking deeply into DNA are both
huge successes that have come from university research.(Universities UK, ND). 76%
of university research is “world leading or internationally excellent”
(Universities UK, ND). This figure proves that research done by universities is
of very high standard and is highly regarded worldwide.Academic researchers are
finding solutions to new illnesses, building new technologies and finding new
ways to do things. All research carried out by universities has positive
impacts for society socially, economically and culturally.One example of
university research that should benefit the whole of society, is that of
research into making artificial intelligence to help doctors, which is being
carried out by the University of Oxford and Londons Royal Free Hospital
(Universities UK, ND). Treatments and research can change on weekly basis and
can be a struggle to keep up with, all the doctor has to do is “add data to a patients profile,
from test results to images and current treatment regimes.The software then
analyses the current situation against clinical guidelines to suggest the most
suitable course of action.” (Universities UK, ND). This technology has the
potential to change healthcare across the globe as it helps to make the best,
most accurate decision. This is just one example of research carried by Universities
that can have a groundbreaking impact on the whole world. It is clear that
university research is crucial in bettering the lives of thousands and so is
seen as one of the key purposes of higher education.

To conclude, it is clear that the point of higher education is not clean
cut and there are various different factors to consider. Through the spendings
of students and other university activities, profit and revenue are made, however,
this is not the sole reason higher education exists, it is merely a benefit
that comes along with it. Helping to manage the skills shortage in the UK, can
be seen as one of the real purposes, equipping the students with the skills and
knowledge to succeed, in all areas. Higher education also plays a huge role in
the research that comes from the UK, their research is acknowledged worldwide.
Overall higher education has many purposes and reasons as to why it exists but
there are many that work together, there is not just one reason alone.

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