What is the point of higher education if it doesn’t lead to greater happiness?

In the book The Methods of Ethics, the late Victorian utilitarian moralist Henry Sidgwick argued that other philosophers of his day were wrong to believe that humans act only for the sake of their own happiness or pleasure. There is a second spring of human action, he argues: the pursuit of excellence.

Sidgwick’s work revived in the 1980s, and he is being read by undergraduates again. If the current generation of university regulators studied him, they have only remembered half of what he taught. We have the Research Excellence Framework, and the Teaching Excellence Framework. Where is the Research Happiness Framework, or the Teaching Happiness Framework?

Still, if you wanted to be happy you might do better to keep clear of the higher education sector. For most academics and students the idea of making progress is about putting in the hard work and experiencing the frustration of getting things wrong most of the time.

It’s the pursuit of excellence, not happiness, that is built into every university mission statement. But what do we mean by excellence?

One kind of parent wants their children to reach their potential by developing their talents and having a satisfying life—excellence as flourishing. Another kind wants their children to come top of their class– excellence as winning. Universities talk the language of flourishing but league tables force us into competition. Our excellence is comparative.

And what exactly is the point of pushing universities to compete with each other? To drive up quality, innovation, and variety of supply. But competition can have other effects. The Research Excellence Framework accelerates this process by rewarding the winners with the resources to do even better next time. This can leave others struggling to keep up, and, rather than innovating, they may try to ape the strategies that have been successful for those at the top. We see this in teaching, too, where university after university is shrinking the supply of lower demand subjects and aiming to boost market share by copying successful programmes elsewhere, especially those with the highest earning potential.

Unlike free-market ideologues, economic regulators know that a competitive system is a delicate ecosystem, and to get its benefits loving care and attention are necessary. Otherwise, the relentless search for profits means it is hard to set up a competitive system that rewards difference, and makes room for genuine innovation at all levels. In the HE(Higher Education) sector at the moment it is hard to tell if we are even trying.

Although Sidgwick believed that individuals seek both happiness and excellence, eventually he reveals that he regards the pursuit of excellence as irrational unless it leads to greater total happiness in the world.

from The Guardian Jan 31, 2019