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In defence of universities … under fire from left and right

By Joan Beckwith - posted Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Universities are under fire from both sides of politics. And I don't like it. Not that I think that counts for anything, except to name my bias before outlining the arguments and setting out a defence.

Universities changed my life

People with my kind of background, particularly women, didn't go to university when I left school. Not until it became free in 1974.

Thirteen years after leaving school, I sat in my first lecture hall. It was bliss. I learned ways to express previously half-formed thoughts and unformed questions. The insights of scholars provided sieves for the whirlpool in my head.


I may therefore be nurturing an idea of education that some would see as naive, outdated, or both. I do cherish a concept of universities as crucibles for ideas, creative thinking and critical analysis.

The case against universities

The attack on universities comes from both sides of politics. The right argues they do a poor job of meeting the needs of employers. The left argues they reproduce inequality under an umbrella of merit. Both arguments can be co-opted by governments intent on cutting costs. Universities, it can be claimed, are a waste of public money and they are unfair.

Universities fail employers … says the right

Bryan Caplan, professor of economics, is one who thinks that universities are a waste of public money. His argument goes like this:

  • Most education doesn't teach you anything you use on the job.
  • Getting the certificate is all that's important.
  • Education's payoff comes from clearing hurdles. 'If you flunk a class, plenty of employers will trash your application. But if you pass that same class, then forget everything you learned, employers will shrug.'
  • That is, qualifications are used by employers as profiling tools, and inefficient ones at that.
  • This kind of profiling leads to credential inflation. The education needed to get a job outstrips the education needed do the job.
  • We should, in such terms, be pushing for less education rather than more.

Universities are more (and less) than conveyor belts for employers

Employment selection processes that screen people in, or out, on the basis of qualifications, regardless of their relationship to the work, need scrutiny. But, doesn't the problem lie with the employment system rather than with universities? Employers might be better off developing their own processes, as Peter Martinsuggests.

Reducing universities to preselection conveyor belts, and then saying they're not very good at the job, and might as well have their funds cut, seems like putting the cart before the horse. It involves a distortion of the traditional role of universities, which are, for example, also research institutions.


Employers must surely carry primary responsibility for meeting their own recruitment needs. They may form productive partnerships with universities, but universities are more, and less, thanfee-for-service corporations hawking professionals from lecture theatre to hot desk (or home office under pandemic conditions).

Universities reproduce the meritocracy and hence inequality … says the left

The critique of universities from the left is that they prop up a false notion of meritocracyand hence promote inequality.

The meritocracy is an icon of modern society. It carries the story that people rise to the top because of their abilities, rather than because they have money behind them, or are well connected.

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This essay is an edited extract from the chapter on education in Social Justice Is for Everyone … An Invitation in Essays to Join a Conversation (Beckwith 2021).

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About the Author

Joan Beckwith is a retired psychologist. She has a BA with majors in Psychology and Media Studies (Swinburne), an MA Preliminary (Psychology) (Melbourne University) an MA (Coursework, Women's Studies) (Latrobe University) a Graduate Diploma in Education (Tertiary) and a PhD (Psychology) (Melbourne University). Dr Beckwith continues to draw on her background and experience in her writing and activism.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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