Higher education principles and values

Back in Ireland, amidst all the noise created by speculation about possible student registration charge hikes, or their replacement by something different, it would be easy to forget why we are concerned about higher education at all. It is clear that it has become a political football, and while at one level this may help to increase public interest and media attention, overall it is questionable whether the debate is helping to focus minds on what matters about our universities and colleges.

In all of the coverage of higher education issues, very little has been said about why it matters. This is being aggravated by the absence of any position of principle around the registration charge issue. According to a report in the Irish Times, Green Party spokesman on education, Paul Gogarty TD, warned that the party’s ‘educational commitments’ could not be compromised. But if you search for what these ‘commitments’ might be, they appear to extend no further than opposition to tuition fees. Even if you accept the party’s position on that issue, it cannot be said to amount to an overall perspective on higher education; that seems to be curiously lacking. The same is true of most of the political debate around the subject, and the position of most of the parties. Furthermore, these limitations of educational policy formulation have, I fear, infected the strategic reviews of higher education, which seem to focus on process issues rather than pedagogy, scholarship or values. A consequence of this focus is that the contribution that higher education makes to national prosperity and well-being is hardly recognised at all, and often the political commentary is, frankly, somewhat ignorant.

But the stakes are very high, and go far beyond the limited analysis we see presented in public.  One interesting angle might be to look at concerns currently being expressed in the United States about the future of the US knowledge sector, particularly in the light of strong advances currently being made in China. As recently as the late 1990s a review of American and Chinese R&D was able to point to the ‘excellence of the US university system’ as a basis for confidence that American technology would continue to lead, even in the context of China’s economic development. By the current year this sense of confidence has gone, and recent reports have suggested that US leadership may be at risk as China continues to invest aggressively. If this happens it will not just be a question of whose universities are winning, it will have an impact on economic growth and development, cultural leadership, political influence and so forth. Universities are key to stability, growth and innovation.

Balancing the books is of course vital during a recession, but it is not the only issue. Politicians who take views on higher education funding, or working methods, or structures, or governance, or accountability are saying nothing worth noting if they do not understand what higher education really does and why that matters. The quality of the Irish higher education debate needs to improve, and to improve fast.

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36 Comments on “Higher education principles and values”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    ‘the political commentary is, frankly, somewhat ignorant.’ Could not agree more, ignorant in the original Latin meaning of ‘not to know’, what politicians only understand is the ‘economic argument’, what they ‘ignore’ is that universities’ mission is not another exercise in branding, it should lie in the liberal arts tradition whose task is to develop free human beings who know how to use their minds and think for themselves. The primary aim is not the development of professional competence (although education is important for any profession)but to produce citizens who can exercise their political liberty responsibly. A cynical might argue that this is exactly what politicians fear most..

    • Jilly Says:

      Well put, Anna.

      • colummccaffery Says:

        Most debates on the purpose and future of education divide on a) the creation of thinking, fulfilled citizens Vs. b)the creation of workers to sustain a prosperous economy. We are now at a time when this divide has never been narrower. The problem is that those who talk most about the information/smart/knowledge society/economy seem to have little or no grasp of what it might mean. The change wrought by ICTs is profound and the evidence is all around us. Sometimes I think that those who want to promote training over education haven’t worked in or looked at a workplace in decades.

        http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/
        http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

        It is not true that there is one political agenda or a “political class”. This is what Michael D. Higgins many years ago labelled “ecumenism of blame”. It is a popular stance in media as it suggests an oppositional radicalism which is entirely bogus and neatly sidesteps the possibility of ever having to take sides.

        • copernicus Says:

          “The change wrought by ICTs is profound and the evidence is all around us. Sometimes I think that those who want to promote training over education haven’t worked in or looked at a workplace in decades”

          Have you done it? I have, as I am associated with it since decades ( besides sitting in my ivory tower as an adademic) and I have successfully placed many young people recently as a free service by me to my fellow academics and their students, and I tell you if you do look at work place, you will have surprises as to who gets the job quickly and move up the career ladder.

        • Al Says:

          @ Colum

          From your second blog link
          “A university is not the place for teaching skills. However, until such time as the rest of the educational system addresses the problem, universities in order to maintain standards and credibility should test for them.”

          Can skills be taught?
          Skills are being practised everyday in universities, some of these skills could be noble study, some could be exam cramming and the practise of minimal effort.

          Am I misunderstanding you?
          You concept of skills seems limited?

  2. copernicus Says:

    Ferdinand observes: “recent reports have suggested that US leadership may be at risk as China continues to invest aggressively. If this happens it will not just be a question of whose universities are winning, it will have an impact on economic growth and development, cultural leadership, political influence and so forth. Universities are key to stability, growth and innovation”

    In STEM areas, US still leads, and it will take very long for China to catch up with US. Once, there was concern about Soviet Union taking the lead with its space achievements bootstrapping other areas. Obama government has not really made cuts as Britain has done, and there is critical mass of private sector which will ensure that STEM superiority is maintained. Knowing China through close contacts with colleagues, the report is like the military in US scaremongering to milk as much of tax dollars as possible. US is uniquely placed as its STEM leadership is concentrated in their excellent laboratories- like Cold Spring Harbour in biological sciences which are privately controlled. As the Iraq war has come to an end, and Afghanistan commitments get reduced, there will be funds to support STEM research there. US is a very rich country. My own almamater-university of Cincinnati has collected $1billion within a year and is embarked on academics improvment. I have seen the devastation after Vietnam war ended, and US bounced back.

    As for Ireland,the current economic climate is not conducive for meaningful discussion about universities. Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph in Britain reported that Chancellor Merkel is repoted to rule out Greek-style bail outs if countries like Ireland (and Spain, Portugal..)faced such a situation.

  3. Al Says:

    One would have to question the wisdom of academia getting involved with these government types.
    Kind of takes away autonomy…
    I suppose thats what philosophy departments could be used for.

    • anna notaro Says:

      if there are any philosophy department left in 10 years time. Their (economic)’impact’ is not easy to identify😦
      The ‘wisdom’ of academia should reside not in avoiding contact with ‘these goverment types’ as you put it (this would lead to a marginalised academia, often already accused of being detached from the ‘real world’), quite to the contrary wisdom should suggest to get MORE involved in order to put forward its case and not to embrace acritically the politicians’ agenda..

      • colummccaffery Says:

        Do you really believe that there is a single “politicians’ agenda” or for that matter a single view from academia? Both should be riven by opposing values – and to an extent are.

        The economic impact of philosophy is very easy to identify. Please see my post above.

      • Al Says:

        Anna
        You have a noble view of politicans…
        I hear what you say, but are you going to cancel your lectures to go off teaching politicians..

    • copernicus Says:

      My alma mater- U of Cincinnati is a case in point. Given the State reduction of tax dollars support from 40% to 20%, Cincinnati trustees embarked on fund collection drive which every alumnus contributed, as the University was reluctant to lobby for more tax dollar injection and wanted to keep its autonomy and rightly so. The 1 billion dollars it collected is going to the academics( faculties)and teaching support to improve the graduation rate. The newly appointed senior vice president and provost, a distinguished scientist in medical sciences, formerly worked in UCL, is receptive to ideas/suggestions from mere mortals like yours truly. In Britain only Oxford and Cambridge can expect such loyalty from its alumni. Recently Imperial is emerging to join the club and UCL is interested too.

  4. Than Says:

    anna couldn’t agree more!


  5. Al, No those weren’t the skills I had in mind. My problem is that while there are excellent students, capable of making the most of what university offers and coming out as a graduate should, there are too many who don’t come to college with the basic skills to maximise their education. They tend to be not quite literate, have a poor grasp of what I’m coming to term “citizen level” maths, science/technology and economics,and poor general knowledge. The problem lies in primary and secondary schooling and in a state exam system that deems them ready for college. However, when they emerge from college, the deficiencies have not been remedied and university education can be unfairly blamed. I don’t think university is the place for teaching these skills. However, until such time as the rest of the educational system addresses the problem, universities in order to maintain standards and credibility should test for them and incidentally this could be done relatively cheaply by computer.

    • Rachel Says:

      Hi All,
      Anna, a comment in reponse to your original post :

      “The primary aim is not the development of professional competence (although education is important for any profession)but to produce citizens who can exercise their political liberty responsibly.”

      I don’t quite agree with this – we all (presumably) know many people who have not been through higher education and who are certainly responsible, energetic, conscientious and knowledgeable participants in our civic society. Many people might be justifiably incensed at a suggestion that graduates are “better citizens” than other people, or that higher education is the best or only environment in which to acquire or develop the dispositions necessary for responsible exercise of political liberty. I am not suggesting that this was your intention, but I would argue that these dispositions and responsibilities can be learned/developed outside of higher education as well as (hopefully) within it. If we want to assess the value and role of higher education in our society, I think we need to ask what higher education offers that is not available elsewhere. I think the answer to this is not about civic responsibility (although I certainly agree that we have a role there) or about transferable skills, but is the same as it always has been, though unfashionable now – the opportunity for deep and sustained intellectual immersion in a subject, guided (hopefully competently) by experts in the subject. If that is no longer needed or valued, then universities and HEIs are indeed at risk of becoming obsolete.

      • copernicus Says:

        A good posting. “if we want to assess the value and role of higher education in our society, I think we need to ask what higher education offers that is not available elsewhere..”. Well said, and every student/parent should carefully consider this. “but is the same as it always has been, though unfashionable now – the opportunity for deep and sustained intellectual immersion in a subject, guided (hopefully competently) by experts in the subject.”, but should I say about my neighbours a bunch of young men and women who had this and even after 10 months could not find jobs and are reduced to stacking supermarket shelves?

      • anna notaro Says:

        I am all in favour of ‘intellectual immersion’ as you put it Rachel, however what is this immersion for if not for students to ’emerge’ as better (global) citizens,having developed intercultural competence, committed to ethically and socially responsible behaviour?

        • Rachel Says:

          Hi Anna, and all – I don’t think we are seriously at odds here Anna, I share your view that the experience of higher education can make people better citizens, and that this is a significant part of the value of higher education. However I wouldn’t see this as what the intellectual immersion is FOR. It might be FOR developing expertise in mathematics, or biochemistry, or Italian Renaissance art, or whatever. It might be possible for an accomplished mathematician (for example) to be a sociopath – this wouldn’t diminish the person’s achievements in mathematics. Whether it would raise doubts about the value/quality of the person’s university education is a question on which opinion might be divided.


      • Very interesting.

        In order “to assess the value and role of higher education in our society”, I don’t agree that “we need to ask what higher education offers that is not available elsewhere” because there seem to be two unsatisfactory answers – one based on outcome and one based on process. You reject the outcome approach because there are clearly refined, competent citizens who have never been to college. However, recognition that such people exist is not incompatible with education having the same outcome in mind for students. The process approach which you favour describes accurately the deeply satisfying experience of a good education but this is not incompatible with the outcome approach.

    • Al Says:

      Thanks for the reply
      So, is there anything (skill) beyond or within the citizen skills you identify?

      Imho, Skill is a much abused word in this country, often disaggregated from higher learning, in a false distinction between vocational and ‘higher’ learning.


  6. Copernicus, Yes, I do have practical experience. I’m not a career academic. I’m a late starter through an evening degree programme. However, I’m certainly not making the case that academics lack practicality. Indeed when I criticised those who had given little thought to the realities of the workplace and ICTs, I wasn’t referring to academics at all.

    • copernicus Says:

      Thanks for the clarification. As for your: “there are too many who don’t come to college with the basic skills to maximise their education. They tend to be not quite literate, have a poor grasp of what I’m coming to term “citizen level” maths, science/technology and economics,and poor general knowledge..” , I agree with this 100%. My comments about the post-92s is that they should have remained as polytechnics and I do believe that skills can be taught, and they were in polytechnics. The employers that I know want those with skills like Web development and web stress testing, network and server maintenance, engine testing, power system maintenance etc..and these do not need university degrees, and need practical skills for which polytechnics were there. There are plenty of vacancies of these types in England, and university degree holders even in computer science, elelctrical,electronic and mechanical engineering etc..are not capable of handling tasks with their theoretical knowledge.

      • Al Says:

        I would challenge the view that skills can be taught. They can be demonstrated, but can they be taught?

        • kevin denny Says:

          Unless you define skills as something that cannot be taught which isn’t very interesting. Before I took driving lessons I couldn’t drive. I can now. What do you think happened in the meantime? Or don’t you think driving is a skill? Obviously you have never seen me drive.

        • Al Says:

          Good point, and I am open to challenge and welcome it, as my mind is still not set on this.
          From what you identified, whatever metric of teaching was applied to your driving could be applied to ALL other students to similar success?
          In the meantime you learnt how to drive.
          What I think I am trying to present, is that you were shown the act of driving, the individual or grouped components of driving, but it was you that constituted this as a skill?

        • copernicus Says:

          They can be self-taught and taught by others. Dr Cooley was arguably the best heart surgeon in Texas. How did he become one? Interesting to read how he taught himself the skill of a stitch knot in a very cofined space by practising to knot a short thread keeping it in a match box. Neurosurgeons learn skills by working with expert neurosurgeons who often teach them… There are other examples like teaching how to micropipet, teaching how to do PCR in bilogy labs etc..

        • Al Says:

          I dont wish to labour the point too much,
          But ‘teaching how to’ is arguably different from skill development?


      • Web “technicians” – no matter how much they are in demand today – have no future. They will go the way of all jobs tied to a particular technology or phase of technology. Because of the speed of technological advance their lifetime will be brief. The familiar response to this is “upskilling” but this tends not to happen. If people were developing their skills as technology changed, there would be a ready supply of web developers etc. by way of former programmers and electronics workers.

  7. copernicus Says:

    @AL How do you define “skills”?

    • Al Says:

      This would do!

      Definition

      an ability to do an activity or job well, especially because you have practised it

      (Definition of skill noun from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)

  8. copernicus Says:

    @AL Surgeons are not born, but trained to acquire skills. Hence skills can be taught.


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