The university debate (guest blog)
Over the next while this blog will host occasional contributions to the debate about the future of the university. Right now in many countries, though not Scotland, public funding for universities is falling (in some cases dramatically) and traditional assumptions of how they should operate are under pressure. Have these changes reinvigorated the idea of the university, or undermined it?
Here a view is offered on changes in the Irish higher education system, by Professor Ronnie Munck of Dublin City University.
It seems to me that the Irish university system is heading down a particular path without much debate or even basic reflection by those driving it down that path. The economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has led to the austerity policies that the IMF once imposed on the developing world. University managers have agreed to a man (yes) that what the universities need is more of the market logic that brought us to this impasse in the first place. Just as with neoliberalism in it’s heyday (before the small detail of the 2008-09 global crisis) ‘there is no alternative’ and there is but one path to salvation.
This is politics, you might suggest. Our job is just to run the universities as best we can in conditions that are not of our choosing. But these are political choices that have been made and, always, people and societies can make other choices. Trade union members at Dublin City University have put out a ‘charter’ laying out ten basic principles they feel are core values of a progressive university fit for purpose in the 21st century. Given the severity of the crisis facing the Irish university (amply demonstrated in this blog) we should probably spend some time reflecting in a safe environment what we feel about this statement. I think all the points are debatable but at least we can agree that some of the right questions are being asked.
To rephrase the ten principles of the DCU Charter as questions we might ask ourselves:
1. Is the university a public good and if so, what does that mean? What level of industry input in its teaching and research agendas are we all comfortable with?
2. Do our university strategies reflect the needs of society at large and do staff and students feel they ‘own’ them?
3. Is our teaching designed to increase the employability of our students and nothing more?
4. Should the research agenda be driven to the extent that it is by economic and state interests, and is there an alternative logic?
5. We all claim to be engaging with society but is this really ‘core business’ in an era of austerity?
6. Are our students consumers of knowledge or our ‘customers’ (customer satisfaction include follows), or is there some other definition of student we might appeal to?
7. Is the current employment control framework, Haddington road, etc a sustainable human relations policy for the university?
8. Are MOOCs simply the only way to go and can we just ditch traditional teaching methods?
9. Are the too many senior posts at the university under present conditions, a slightly different question, are they over-administered?
10. Do we still value collegiality and creativity, or is it a case of ‘needs must’ and we need to run universities like businesses?
So over to you all. We were all once students and we should be able to respond coherently and persuasively to these questions. After all we ask our students to do this all the time!
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