In established industrialised societies, where most of the important debates about the overall general direction of society have been resolved, the debates around the purpose of higher education usually centre around the contests between utilitarianism (vocational and professional skills and employability) and some relatively more lofty ideas, such as ‘self-fulfilment’, ‘nourishing the soul’ and sustaining values, social cohesion, and even social justice. In recent years, with the value dimension of education being marginalised in the era of moral relativism, some observers have deplored the increasing tendency towards ‘the rise of corporatisation and managerialisation of higher education processes, as well as the increasing political polarisation and plutocracy of public policies’.
However, in societies where the fundamentals are still being contested, the role of higher education is much more crucial and central. There is a dynamic relationship in all societies between the production of knowledge and the process of education. Institutions of higher education cannot exist without a significant body of knowledge to share, contemplate and critically engage with. During its early phase, as was the case in Athens or early Islamic history, knowledge production centred on a few gifted individuals and their circles of disciples. But as knowledge advanced, organised educational institutions arose to deal with the growing body of knowledge and manage its complexity through specialisation and long periods of intensive training.