How does higher education change people?
I think it must have been in 1976. It was certainly around about that time. A well-known debating society in the university where I was then a student organised a debate on apartheid, the political system (or aberration) that was at that time still governing South Africa. Various people were there to speak for the motion: I don’t really remember what it was, but it must have been some variant on the theme that apartheid was a Bad Thing (which of course it was). A man from some South African organisation or other based in London was there to speak against, or maybe his point was that the South African political system was badly misunderstood. None of that was really worth a raising of the eyebrows, everyone was there to do and say what the script expected of them, including the loud shouts of righteous indignation (myself very much included) from the floor whenever the Man From South Africa made any point excusing or justifying his country’s politics. But the thing that really got everyone going and that caused both excitement and temper was the fact that there was a second person opposing the motion, and heaven help us, that second person was a student. No, not a rich South African kid spending time away from home: it was a normal Irish student. Defending apartheid!
What was shocking was, in the first place, that really anybody in Ireland could defend the indefensible (and nothing has changed my mind, apartheid was totally and utterly indefensible). But perhaps more than that, what was shocking to others present was that a person could become a student in a modern university and still hold conservative or right wing views. There were certain things you expected of students back then: that they stayed in bed as late as possible; that they did not get a haircut more than twice a year; and that each and every one of their views was politically left wing and socially liberal.
Maybe if I were transported back to 1976 with my current experiences and views I might worry a tad that political and social views in the student body were held in check by a pretty rigorous orthodoxy, and that debates rarely involved a thoughtful balance. Maybe. But in this decade, and for that matter that last two decades, I would not have been much concerned about that, as many students turned much more conservative and conventional – or at least so it has seemed to me. The left-leaning and liberal views are still there, but they face alternative positions in the student body that are much more traditional and respectable.
But does today’s student body, and maybe the university community generally, more accurately reflect the wider views in society, or is the pattern in the colleges still different? An answer of sorts has been given to that question by a survey, undertaken by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and reported in the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education, into the ‘Diverging Influences of the College Degree & Civic Learning on American Beliefs’. In summary this survey of a sample of the US population indicates that those with university degrees are more liberal and tolerant than those who do not have a higher education qualification; but not more knowledgeable when it comes to ‘civic literacy’ (i.e. knowledge about political history, political processes and political ideas). So for example, those with a bachelor’s degree will look much more favourably on same sex marriage, and much less favourably on the role of religion in schools. They will be less likely to believe that American institutions are a force for good, but ironically will be less likely to know what those institutions are.
The survey doesn’t tell us what causes these changes in attitude, or how higher education can accompany (as it could hardly cause) ignorance in relation to civic matters. But it gives us an insight into what goes on in a student’s mind, and therefore how education can influence and change politics and ideas. And perhaps it can prompt us to ask whether this is what we expect education to do, and therefore whether we do or do not want to reform it. It would, to my mind, be extremely interesting to undertake a similar survey in Ireland in order to get a perspective on the impact of higher education here. And it might allow us to see also whether student attitudes have changed over the years, as my gut instinct tells me (maybe wrongly) that they have.
It would also allow us to have an intelligent discussion around what, apart from training, we want and expect higher education to do, and how we would like it to change society for good. And in the end, that is much more important than asking how many universities would be just right for Ireland.