Monday, November 20, 2006

Selling Our Soul..?

There was an article in the Times the other day about HEfc (the Higher Education Funding Council); the discussion was about redistribution of HE funds around the Universities and how in the future they will favour those institutions who attract more students from poorer backgrounds and potentially disadvantage the research orientated institutions. It got my interest when it went on to talk about the need for universities to work more closely with business, in order to attract sponsorship, as a way to enable them to grow and develop.

That got me to thinking about the clash of interest many think exists between public service and private enterprise. It's a dilemna ALL educational establishments have to deal with (all other social-orientated enterprise as well I suppose); The National Health Service is a good example. It grates upon us (well, it does upon me anyway) when we see the encroachment private business practices are making into hospitals etc, and the speed with which these changes are happening, and forever gathering pace.

About this distinction we make in society between enterprise for 'gain' as opposed to enterprise for 'good'; It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Seems to me to be about whether or not we expend our energy in order to 'take' from society or in order to 'give' to it. Perhaps what's needed is a little of both. In my view we do in this country have a slightly misplaced suspicion of business per se. Not withstanding some of the less savoury business practices we hear about (and I grant you they do exist), business does nevertheless employ people and give them their livelihoods and, lets face it is a wholly natural and healthy element of any society.

So, is this 'clash of interest' real or imaginary, ideological or actual? I can't escape this deep-down feeling that the two CAN reside comfortably together, that they can operate alongside each other with neither having to compromise upon its fundamental principles or aims; That there is a balance to be struck whereby the two are actually one and the same i.e. in taking, one uses what one takes to build something, and that something we are building is then capable of giving back. I do accept that the Educationalists need to keep their wits about them to ensure that they remain whole as a result of this partnership with the business 'devil' (and on that point I believe I'm only half joking.)

Businesses are there to make profit, to grow by gathering and, at least to some degree, holding onto what has been gathered. The purpose of Education on the other hand is to grow by giving. Profit in this instance is the growth in social capital that comes in the form of well educated citizens. I like the analogy of a conduit: Something that enables energy, material or whatever to flow through it, only 'holding' in the sense that it guides that material towards a particular goal. What is important here is the energy not the conduit itself. Growth, is an expansion of the walls of the conduit, a way to increase the flow.

Business Sponsorship is then nothing more than pursuading those that makes gains to release them back into the society from which they came in the first place. Of course they (the business) achieve exposure from that, self-promotion but what is the harm if it ensures their continued existence and thus their ability to give back even more?

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