The Right to Higher Education: A Q&A with Dr. Christopher Martin

Should a person’s right to education end after high school? Dr. Christopher Martin’s recent book, The Right to Higher Education sets out a novel account of the point and purpose of higher education, something that has been a controversial debate both in public settings and in policy. The book has received positive reviews with critics calling it “a touchstone text in higher education research,” (Jennifer Morton, University of Pennsylvania) and a “remarkable book” that “shapes a compelling vision of what universities and colleges should be doing” (Harry Brighouse, University of Wisconsin-Madison).

Special thank you to the UK band Sea Power for the permission to use their lyrics in the book’s preface.


What is your book about?

 The book asks what post-compulsory/higher education in a free and open society ought to look like.

The answer is that access to education should be a basic entitlement of any and all adult citizens over their entire lifespan.

This means that our post-compulsory institutions, including our universities, should be structured in a way that reflects this right. For example, we have this widespread assumption that university places are something people should compete for, or qualify for, much like a job. One of the major conclusions in the book is that even if people should be well prepared before they access some types of educational programming, this should not be a legitimate reason to deny citizens access to a university education across the board. The university (and other educational institutions, I should add) ought to make space for those that would not “merit” access under the terms of the current system.

Who might be interested in reading your book?

The way we choose to structure our basic social institutions, including educational institutions, have a profound impact on individual citizens and society in general. Everyone has a stake in the argument. If you’ve ever wondered about what an education is for, or had thoughts about what you think it should be for, there’s something in the book for you.

More specifically, the book draws on concepts and ideas in moral and political philosophy, the philosophy of education, and social policy. People with interests in these fields may want to check out the book. In addition, because the book makes an argument about the justice and fairness of higher education, people interested in addressing social inequality and working for institutional reform are likely to find the book provocative. I’d also include anyone with an interest in higher education policy and practice. Finally, I think undergraduate student might benefit from it as well, if only because they should have opportunities to reflect on, and debate, what a higher education is about.

What impact do you hope your book will have?

 I had one main goal when writing the book, and that’s to generate some much-needed public and scholarly discussion about the core values and aims of education beyond a basic level in liberal democratic societies. I think this question is often neglected or, when it gets attention, is too narrowly framed. Let me offer one example. On the one hand, some of the public debate on higher education focuses on the university and the educational ideals that it represents, such as the pursuit of truth for its own sake. These ideals are undoubtedly worth articulating and defending. I certainly care deeply about them. On the other hand, we also have a robust and timely debate about the socioeconomic effects of mass university education and the role of elite selection on civic inequality. The role of a stratified system of education surely plays a role in economic and political inequality. There are certainly ways we can make the competition for university places fairer. I, like many, also care about socioeconomic fairness and equality of opportunity.

However, these debates tend to take the higher education system as it is currently structured for granted. What’s missing is an analysis of the value of education qua education in everyday people’s lives, generally speaking. I think starting with this larger backdrop, and working out the different contributions that a higher education can offer to people in addition to scholarly knowledge and upward social mobility, leads to a better understanding of how educational institutions can serve the interests of all citizens.

For example, at a basic level the right to higher education isn’t about making the competition for university places more ‘level’ or fair. Rather, it requires educational institutions to find innovative ways of opening educational spaces to people that want an education, full stop. If you really want to learn, there should be a place for you. And this includes people who have interest or goals quite apart from employment credentials, as important as this may be. And we can build in the various other elements, like where we think competitive selection is really warranted or needed, downstream from this rights-based foundation.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was a student at the University of London, and working as a sessional instructor, during the Great Recession. There was a lot of talk about cuts to higher education, and the problem of student debt was very much on the forefront of people’s minds. There was this growing frustration with the growing private costs of higher education and amount of educational debt that came with that growth. This was especially the case in the UK with the increase of the tuition cap to 9,000 GBP in 2009.

If you are a student it might make sense to think ‘well, of course we shouldn’t have to pay or borrow a lot. If you want to go to university the state should help, and make these private costs more manageable.’ In fact, you might even take this idea further and claim that it should be fully funded by the state. But it’s not that simple. The problem is that the people most likely to go to university already come from a fairly advantaged background. They’re already likely to be in the middle class. If post-secondary education was free, what you would actually be doing is subsidizing the education for an already well-off group of people. That’s the worry, at least. In fact, you see this debate continuing today with some of the controversy over the Biden Administration possibly forgiving student debt for some US graduates.

It’s conflicts like this where philosophy has an important role to play. The moral intuitions that drive the debate on each side are totally understandable. On the one hand, the story we tell to young people is that a further education is really important and a good thing to pursue for oneself and for society, and then we charge them a great deal of money to get it. This seems unfair, or is at least inconsistent with the message. On the other hand, taking public money that could be put to things like health care or public schooling in order to lower the costs of higher education for people who are already doing well in life (and will do even better, once they have a degree) also seems unjust.

So it’s the moral conflict that captured my interest. My thinking was: okay, so what is it that we might be missing about how we reason about the value of higher education? How do we get out of this trap? What unexamined assumptions are we making that drive this moral conflict? The book’s argument is, in some ways, an attempt to reconcile these conflicting intuitions.

Interested in learning more?

Listen to the Centre for Ethics & Education podcast episode, “The Right to Higher Education” with Dr. Martin.