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.