The demonisation of higher education

These are scary times. At no point in my academic career have I experienced such an avalanche of criticism of higher education institutions, and so much publicly expressed scepticism of the sector’s goals, standards, ethics and prospects. Nor is this a localised phenomenon, very similar things are happening elsewhere. So for example, the recent issues of the British journal Times Higher Education are full of comments (here, for example) about the collapse in morale and self-confidence of the university sector, and the cuts-and-criticism approach of politicians. In some US states, funding has been cut dramatically, while politicians wonder aloud whether past investments have really been worthwhile.

Apart from the criticism, what events in these (and other) countries have in common seems to be a hesitation by the universities to state their case in a coherent manner. Individuals may speak out, but when the sector as a whole does so it is often too defensive, and there are few signs that these statements change the public mood. This comes alongside a period during which the public sector more generally is not popular, something that will probably be aggravated by today’s warnings by Irish trade unions about forthcoming strikes and other actions.

A few things are making all this worse. One is a lack of readily available robust material giving a true picture of the benefits society gets from vibrant universities; we need to get much better at assembling metrics and using them cleverly in public debate. Secondly, there is a distinct absence (in Ireland at least) of a forum, or a centre of excellence, or something like a think tank, where intelligent arguments are worked on and disseminated about higher education in a credible and independent manner, in a way that does not look like just a defence of traditional privileges. And thirdly, the sector has not been good at making allies and ensuring that these speak out on our behalf. During the past week’s discussions, not even those industry representatives who have close links with universities have defended us; have we really not convinced them, or engaged them to think of themselves as out friends? And where are our supporters from the voluntary sector, or community groups?

It is time to stop being victims and to prepare our case properly. It is time to make the case for higher education, and to do it effectively.

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18 Comments on “The demonisation of higher education”

  1. Iainmacl Says:

    Powerful and important stuff, Ferdinand. These are exactly the sort of issues we are discussing here in Galway and is part of the contextual background to our developing research and public engagement work. Over the last couple of years we have had a series of visitors, offering seminars as part of our MA programme, with whom we have engaged in discussion about the nature and possible futures for HE. We are at a critical time and in a sense the HE sector, precisely because of its fragmentation is a soft target for political ire. Yes, there should be a coherent voice, but the reality is that there are differing opinions, internal (within the country) competition for resources and the phenomenon of those academic ‘outliers’ who seem to have the ear of the minister, or at least the phone number of some journalists!

    As for the situation elsewhere, well in England (with which the THE is obsessed, rather than elsewhere in the UK) the situation is particularly grim with major redundancies in the offing. Interestingly there the association of the universities with the department responsible for business is likely to worsen, rather than protect their status. Note though, there is no real threat to the protected elite of Oxbridge. And it is interesting to see that internationally, governments seem intent on keeping a little privileged corner untouched, perhaps for the needs of their own children and those of their patrons, whilst the rest of the sector is to be regulated, restructured and focused on training.

    The fear of ‘biting the hand that….’ no doubt plays a role in the lacklustre response of the sector, but it runs the danger of leaving those at the frontline of feeling abandoned to their fate. For individual academics neither is there a professional body that is capable of championing their cause(s). Yes there are the unions but their focus is often on employment-specific issues, protecting contracts, terms and salaries.

    Not that such a body would solve the issue and indeed it might well be very difficult to lead, but it does differentiate us significantly from the other professions.

    As regards further debate and discussion, that’s what we try to do with the broader ‘Galway Symposium’ albeit that its most visible manifestation is the conference in June, the discussions continue throughout the year, time perhaps to widen them even further.

    • Iain, the role you and your colleagues in NUIG play is very important, and I look forward to your conference! I guess we all need to move this debate more and more into the mainstream.

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:


  3. BrendanH Says:

    This is perhaps an opportune moment, then, to advertise the lecture Kathleen Lynch will give in UL this week, on the role of the university in creating a just and equal society.

  4. belfield Says:

    Wouldn’t disagree with any aspect of the above.
    But what I find interesting in all of this is that it’s in the ‘developmental states’ where the discourse of economic imperative is most unchecked (and more especially the UK, US and us) that the university is under such assault.
    There aren’t, for instance, a whole lot of nordic colleagues getting all that exercised about these issues.
    And yes, Kathleen Lynch will name the beast as she has done so well and so often before. But once again all the wrong people will be there to hear her.

    • Interesting comment – but I think that some countries may not align in this way. For example, there is also a major kerfuffle about HE in Germany right now, which follows a different economic model.

      • belfield Says:

        And which has, as I understand it, a different (if related) ‘crisis’ to deal with? Isn’t the German and possibly Swiss situation more to do with ongoing realignment of university teaching and research activities plus changing enrolment patterns rather than the sort of pointed highly politicised assault we’re seeing here? Or perhaps I’m missing something.

      • Perry Share Says:

        I understood it was to do with the implementation of the Bologna system? Specifically the introduction of 4-year degrees.

  5. Enda Says:

    Same old story, private financial institutions lie, cheat and embezzle billions and after a short period all the attention moves back to the public sector. Of course there are problems and there is plenty of room for reform and a more efficient use of resources. However the disparity between the attention on reform in the public sector and the complete absence of the same for the financial system that caused this mess is astounding. I really cannot believe we’re actually falling for this.

  6. kevin denny Says:

    Isn’t the obvious body responsible for promoting the case for universities, the IUA? Which then raises the question: how come they are not doing a very good job? Time to ‘fess up, Ferdinand.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      The IUA represents the current Universities, not the sector. It isn’t independent, its statements are decided directly by people representing the Universities. It can’t make statements or commission reports that are critical of current practice or policy in the seven sisters; without that independence it is ineffective.

      Of course, there are lots of things wrong with the IUA itself, but I assume Ferdinand isn’t in a position to agree and, anyway, that is a different discussion.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Aoife: we’re talking about the universities basically so they are a very large part of the sector. The IUA’s function is “…to advance university education and research through the formulation and pursuit of collective policies and actions on behalf of the Irish Universities…” . Yes it is not independent of the universities: it exists to bat for them. So if universities are not getting the recognition they feel the deserve then that suggests to me that their representative association is not doing a very good job. Yes, they are indeed unlikely to be self-critical, that is why I am doing it.
        Engaging in the noble Irish art of buck-passing isn’t going to get the universities anywhere.

  7. Aoife Citizen Says:

    IBEC represents employers, ESRI is a think tank whose function it is to help further economic and social life in Ireland: IBEC does a good job representing employers but when they put out a report saying this our that about competitiveness, most of us roll our eyes, if the ESRI does the same, we listen.

    Yes, IUA is poor and part of that is because it actions are contingent on direct meetings between University officers, it grew out of CHIU. However, beyond that, it exists on behalf of the Universities, that is quite distinct from the need, expressed above, for a think tank on higher education.

  8. Walter Says:

    Bravo! I came across your blog recently and I’m now a convert. Plain speaking that cuts through all the flim-flam. Have you ever thought of running for President?

    • Many thanks, Walter. What kind of President? 🙂

      • Walter Says:

        The kind of President who does not use state money to build extravagant houses, one who isn’t spending his time at the K-Club. And most importantly, one who is not afraid to put the boot into those ‘outliers’ (or should we say ‘outright-liars’) who seem to have nothing better to do than to try and drag this country down.

  9. […] others, I’ve been trying to make some sense of it all. It’s difficult however to do so when the thing […]

  10. […] are scary times.” Thus blogged Prof. Ferdinand von Prondzynski just over a year ago during his tenure as President of DCU. And […]

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