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Higher Education and the Public Good: Imagining the University

reviewed by Malcolm Tight - September 06, 2013

coverTitle: Higher Education and the Public Good: Imagining the University
Author(s): Jon Nixon
Publisher: Continuum, New York
ISBN: 0826437435, Pages: 176, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

This relatively thin volume has connections to many literary genres. One is to what might be called the crisis literature, which for many decades has told us that higher education is in a woeful state, and is only getting worse. This is a huge literature, and many examples may be readily identified on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond (e.g., Bloom 1987, Evans 2004, Gokulsing & DaCosta 2000, Keeling & Hersh 2011, Smith 1990). Significantly, however, this is not a literature within which Nixon locates his contribution.

Instead, Nixon places his argument within what might be termed the work of contemporary (mainly) great thinkers, such as Arendt, Aristotle, Beck, Gadamer, MacIntyre, Nussbaum, Said, Sen and Stiglitz. Interestingly, much of their work is not directly about higher education, though it is typically carried out within it. While the context within which Nixon is writing is the UK, his canvas is broad and his intention bold. But does he succeed in convincing us that, in the words of the back cover ‘blurb’, ‘the university now has to be re-imagined as a social, civic and cosmopolitan good that is central to the well-being of civil society and its citizens’? I’m not so sure.

It is fairly easy to work out what Nixon dislikes about the present state of higher education, as he sets out his complaints in the opening chapter. For example:

Higher education is increasingly located – and implicated – in the swampland of semi-private, semi-public provision; or, in officialese, the ‘enabling state’. The increasing reliance on mechanisms of accountability and audit in the management of higher education is what is now most easily associated with that weasel worded phrase. However, within higher education, this reliance on the managerial mechanisms of the ‘enabling state’ has been complemented by the increasing reliance of higher education on commercialization, commodification, competition and classification. (pp. 8-9)

The notion that (mass) higher education might be managed on more business-like lines, might be privately run, and might even make a profit, is clearly anathema to him. There is a strong sense of ‘golden age’ yearning here, harking back to a mythical time when universities were well-funded by the state but left alone to govern themselves, and were enabled to provide a broad and liberal higher education to those who wished to avail themselves of it.

Getting a clear handle on what Nixon wants—beyond the generalized assertion that higher education is, or should be, a ‘public good’—is, however, more difficult. Many general desires are asserted, such as:

Higher education must develop individuals who are not only efficient and effective in their use of their acquired knowledge, but who can use that knowledge to make complex choices regarding the right uses and applications of that knowledge. (p. 26)

I imagine nearly everyone would sign up to that, though, so long as we didn’t divert ourselves into a lengthy debate around what the ‘right uses and applications’ might be.

The notion of re-imagining structures the first half of the book, so that we are treated to successive chapters on social, civic and cosmopolitan imaginaries, which aim at providing ‘an imaginative understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to develop as a human being in the twenty-first century’ (p. 65). The purposes of higher education are discussed in terms of human flourishing, personhood and inter-dependency; civic presence, participation and purpose; and cosmopolitan connectivity, reflexivity and futures. It reads well enough, but is familiar territory and, I would say, more ‘motherhood and apple pie’ than imaginary.

The second part of the book—structured around another triumvirate: human capability, reasoning and purpose—then aims to tell us what should actually be done. The emphasis is very much on individual development for the good of the collective. An impressive amount of Greek terminology is employed—eudaimonia, phronesis and telos—confirming the benefits of having had a good classical education. The argument comes across very much like an old-fashioned socialist manifesto. Nixon ends with three ideas: that higher education should be transformational, located ‘within the ongoing democratic struggle for both liberty and equality’, and aimed at the creation of ‘a republic of learning’ (pp. 117-118).

I find it impossible to go along with the endorsements on the back cover – “it is difficult to imagine a better book on the university,” “Jon Nixon salvages higher education from the wreckage,” “Jon Nixon’s book is of both a heroic and a noble kind.” It is a pleasant enough read if you have an hour or so to spare, and haven’t read this kind of treatise before. But, in presenting the existing state of affairs within higher education as so dire, and offering only a familiar and generic set of responses (which actually sound much like what many of us working in higher education—from presidents and vice-chancellors down to the humblest teaching assistant—are actually trying to deliver), it is, in essence, just a diversion.


Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.

Evans, M. (2004). Killing thinking: The death of the universities. London, UK: Continuum.

Gokulsing, K., & DaCosta, C. (Eds.) (2000). A compact for higher education. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Keeling, R., & Hersh, R. (2012). We’re losing our minds: Rethinking American higher education. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smith, P. (1990). Killing the spirit: Higher education in America. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 06, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17240, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:02:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Malcolm Tight
    Lancaster University
    E-mail Author
    MALCOLM TIGHT is Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University, having previously worked at the University of Warwick, Birkbeck College, and the Open University. He has been Editor of the leading international journal, Studies in Higher Education, since 1999. His current research interests are in the state of higher education research internationally and the development of higher education in the UK postwar.
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