2014 and the higher education agenda

For the past two weeks or so, and like much of the rest of society around here, this blog took a holiday. But now we are well into 2014, and it is time to consider what this year might bring.

If you follow some discussions of higher education, the impression you might get is that it is all about two things: how universities and colleges are funded, and how they are run. A more recent perspective has been added by some movements that have sprung up in the academic community, such as the ‘Campaign for the Public University‘ in Britain and ‘Defend the Irish University‘ in Ireland. These have focused on the status of higher education as a ‘public good’ rather than a private benefit for students – with resulting implications for funding and management.

What gets much less air time is the substance of higher education: what it does, and how it can best do it. There has, over the past year or two, been some discussion about so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses); but apart from that, there is little public debate about pedagogy, or about the changing contours of knowledge, or the potential benefits to society of different kinds of scholarship. There is discussion about whether economic impact is a legitimate consideration in higher education strategy, but relatively little about how universities can provide leadership in social, cultural and economic renewal.

I have no doubt that this blog will continue to address the funding and management issues; but I hope we can also discuss a little more how higher education can develop and reinvent itself in its education and knowledge dimension. That’s my hope for 2014.

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39 Comments on “2014 and the higher education agenda”


  1. As academics we are supposed to have open skeptical minds. Perhaps we should be questioning the need for universities at all. It does seem odd that this hypothesis is not considered at all by academics. It seems like a basic axiom that univeristies are required by society. Yes, I know universities evolve and it is hard to see how you would get from here to there even if it were the right way to go but aren’t academics supposed to be discussing such big questions with open minds. Perhaps not, even though we couch our arguments in terms of the benefits of universities to society it is interesting that http://defendtheuniversity.ie/ is a trade union initiative whose priority is understandably the security and quality of employment of members rather than the benefits to society.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Brian, your idea of trade unionism is a rather limited one and factually incorrect, being part of a trade union is not simply about ensuring one has representation in the workplace but also about being part of a wider movement to achieve better working conditions (and create a better society) for ALL. As for questioning the need for universities at all, this view has been already put forward on the basis on new technological advances, the Khan model etc. https://www.khanacademy.org/about although it is interesting to note that even such ‘disruptive’ models seem to retain the word ‘academy’ (a similar phenomenon happens in the world of (e)books as well, but that is another story) in any case, this should come about not on the basis of ‘professional skepticism’ alone, the focus should be on the reasons why universities have been such enduring and evolving institutions. In order to do that it is interesting to consider the history of universities, as the author of this piece puts it: “The fact that the first university, that of Salerno, should have been organized round a medical school, the second, that of Bologna, around a law school, and the third, that of Paris, around a school of theology and philosophy, would seem to represent the ordinary natural process of development in human interests. First man is interested in himself and in his health, then in his property, and finally in his relations to his fellow-man and to God” http://health.yodelout.com/medical-school-at-salerno/
      It is an insightful comment, although I would argue that such interests overlapped even then.

      I share Ferdinand’s hope for 2014 that higher education might develop and reinvent itself in its education and knowledge dimension, my hope is that in doing that universities will get better at passing on values of trans-disciplinary inquiry, tolerance and curiosity for the benefit of all members of society.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Yes, by all means, let’s entertain the idea that universities are not needed. . . .

      OK, done. It’s a stupid idea and not worth considering for one simple reason: universities are the only places in our societies where knowledge and thought are pursued for their own sake (Ferdinand’s nihilism in this regard notwithstanding). Even if one were utterly convinced that the only benefit to anything is its economic payoff, you would probably still want some kind of institution that wasn’t shackled to short-term payoffs and could serve as an idea generator.


      • Hi Ernie.

        Now I’m only an engineer and I have only done Philosophy 101 from Edinburgh as a MOOC, but…
        “universities are the only places in our societies where knowledge and thought are pursued for their own sake”
        Doesn’t this statement need only one counter example to be proven false? Any suggestions anyone? And even if it were true, it would not rule out the the really fantastical idea that we could create a different type of institution for that purpose if we needed it. As it says on my kids’ EA games: “Challenge everything!” Isn’t that what we academics do? Even just for fun.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          OK, duly noted my pedantic friend: “the only meaningful places in our societies, etc.” If you want to show me an institution where courtly love poetry, the law of the excluded middle, nuclear fusion, the Javanese gamelan et tutti quanti are studied for their own sake, I’ll happily stand corrected.

          If your idea is that we should abolish the universities and replace them with something else, I’m afraid the very heavy burden of proof is on you.

          This doesn’t mean I’m not very impressed by the utter presumption of the idea: 900 years of human endeavour to be swept away in thought because . . . the internet. Who could’ve imagined that our Robespierre would be an online learning specialist at Sligo IT?!

          • Anna Notaro Says:

            Ernie, I’m with you on the ‘defense’ aspect, but not on the ‘for its own sake’ argument, universities have survived centuries not exclusively because of the utilitarian (or not) aspect of the knowledge they create and disseminate, it’s the ‘idea generator’ function you mention that is the most valuable defense of all..


          • “Who could’ve imagined that our Robespierre would be an online learning specialist at Sligo IT”. I am duly humbled. It seems that I’ve taken to questioning ideas of people who are way above my status. It seems that I must accept the wisdom of the ages and my betters. If it has always been thus, why would I question it. Indeed, my religious elders have also noted my lack of respect in regard to tradition. Thanks for the heads up. Who’s Robespierre by the way (and how do you pronounce that)?

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            Brian, just to be clear, I am not casting myself as your better. I am casting all of those who, over the past 900 years, made the university into the formidable force for knowledge that it is (or was until about the mid-1990s) ought to be worthy of a bit more humility on your part. But ours is not an age of humility is it? Every half-wit clown with a new gizmo or website is ready to throw all of western culture into the toilet. Because . . . the internet. Meanwhile, my university has been quite busy adding the word “innovation” to the name of everything it can. Today I had an Innovation Burger in the Innovation Restaurant and then took a leak in the Innovation Bathroom.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            Oops, bit of a cock up there. Sentence should read: “I am, rather, insisting that all of those who, over the past 900 years, made the university into the formidable force for knowledge that it is (or was until about the mid-1990s) ought to be worthy of a bit more humility on your part.”


          • Ernie, I’m well aware of the limitations of my own knowledge and reasoning but have learned over the years to question those in authority if I don’t understand what they are saying or if I disagree (often through misunderstanding). One thing most of us have learned in the last few years, through government, business and religious scandals, is not to trust seeming authority or longevity. 900 years just doesn’t do it for me. Although the thinkers I admire most tend to be in Universities, I do find they seem to have a blind spot when it comes to self-analysis (not universal by any means). I believe that this may be a form of confirmation bias which I is a natural characteristic (discovered in a university) and even quite common in researchers. And if you object to the current enthusiasm for innovation in universities, you’ve got plenty of company, including me. Universities do not seem to be suitable for innovation.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            Do you always miss the point? It’s not the longevity. It’s the achievements.


          • Not always, but often. It must have been the several times you said 900 years that made me miss that point. As I said there are many wonderful thinkers in Universities and individuals in universities (as well as outside) have had many wonderful achievements, but that would not stop me from questioning their continued existence or complete re-design. Perhaps the fact that I’ve spent 35 years in higher education as both a consumer and producer (don’t you just hate those words) that has made me such a skeptic.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            How do you know you’re a skeptic and not just ignorant? Again: humility.


          • I am ignorant (relatively speaking) in that there is lots that I don’t know. I try to improve that by exposing myself to new ideas and questioning things that I don’t understand or agree with. So I’m a skeptic as well in that I don’t accept knowledge based on authority alone. They are not mutually exclusive.

            I thought you said that poetry had a practical application.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            So let me get this straight: you seriously thought that I was arguing that literature departments should continue to exist because they help men to score? How is any discussion possible here?

            But I forgot: although you can barely read or follow an argument, you’re the bold questioner of authority who sees no reason why universities shouldn’t be pushed into the sea.

        • foleyg Says:

          Brian, ‘Ernie Ball’ is best ignored. Anyway, I think it is ironic that in these days of “lifelong learning” people forget that learning for its own sake doesn’t need any institution at all! But formal, structured education does. As an engineer myself I can’t imagine an alternative.


      • Nihilism? Ernie, you must be working off a different philosophical framework than the one I was taught. But actually, I’ll bet you my last dollar that you don’t yourself actually believe that ‘knowledge and thought are pursued for their own sake – as this would suggest that you could not think of any reason for pursuing knowledge and thought but feel you should do it anyway. I bet you (and I) can think of lots of reasons.

        • no-name Says:

          “I’ll bet you my last dollar that you don’t yourself actually believe that ‘knowledge and thought are pursued for their own sake – as this would suggest that you could not think of any reason for pursuing knowledge and thought but feel you should do it anyway. I bet you (and I) can think of lots of reasons.”

          Pursuing something for reason X, when Y and Z are additional viable motivations, hardly entails that Y and Z provide the actual motivation for the pursuit. Rather, pursuing something for reason X means that the pursuit would be engaged for reason X even if Y and Z do not obtain. It does not mean that the agent could not imagine any alternative to X, but chooses to act because of X. Here, X is “for its own sake” — merely, “to know”.


          • To be fair to Ernie, pursuing knowledge for its own sake is fun. Us geeks do it down the pub, at coffee and even on the Internet. Some research, other than which side toast tends to fall on, may require some funding. In such cases, I do accept that the piper who is paying is likely going to apply some sort of criteria for deciding what to fund and even to decide if a university is the best place to do that work. By the way, is CERN a university? No doubt it is connected to a bunch of universities.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Yes, Ferdinand, nihilism. We’ve had this argument. See this comment and following. As for your last comment here, no-name makes the case as well as I could. Obviously I don’t think that knowledge is only valuable for itself. Knowledge is required to be able, say, to fix a car. My claim is rather that even when there is not and will never be any such practical application, knowledge still remains valuable, a human good. Were it not, there are whole areas of study that, I take it, you’d happily evacuate not only from the university but also from human existence. Of what good is the study of courtly love poetry? Oh, wait, I know: to score!

          I also believe, based on our 2011 discussion, that you do in fact believe that some things are good in themselves and either you don’t recognise your own belief or you don’t want to recognise it.


          • Ernie, you’re right, it is hard to think of knowledge that does not have a practical value (I wish my English teacher had told me I could use poetry to score – I would have paid more attention). However, I tried hard and think I found something. Post-modern philosophy? But maybe that does not count as knowledge – depends on your point of view, I suppose.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            Man are you missing the point. It is not at all hard to think of knowledge with no practical value.


          • Maybe, it’s worse than I think. I do find it hard to think of knowledge that is of no practical value. Number theory used to have no use until they applied it to cryptography. However, that does provide an argument for generating knowledge for its own sake. Give us a few examples. Anything ending in “studies”?

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            I already gave you an example: courtly love poetry (or the study of poetry in general). The same goes for the study of any of the arts, history, philosophy, much pure science, etc.

            By the way, the little snipes about postmodern philosophy and “studies” are completely misdirected. I have no truck with any of that stuff.

  2. V.H Says:

    Is this like the position taken by a Civil Service where they think the reason for their existence is to exist and the reason everyone else exists is to keep them existing. And that they should be darn grateful to do so.🙂

  3. MunchkinMan Says:

    As the topic is about Higher Education, surely the word andragogy should be used instead of pedagogy in Ferdinand’s initial posting?

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    Brian, regarding your point above about discovering Postmodern philosophy, quoting from one of your comments in the 2011 thread (link in Ernie’s comment above) “it [postmodernism] ignores the basic tenets of the scientific method would indicate that it is not worth my while looking into it any further”. Just wondering whether you had changed your mind about it..

    In general, it is a bit of a shame that an interesting exchange seems to have come down to trivialities like the use of poetry to score or gross characterizations of the internet as enabling “any half-wit clown to throw all of western culture into the toilet.”

    Personally, I am still convinced, as I wrote in 2011 that the contrasting ideas that something is ‘intrinsically valuable’ and valuable ‘for a reason’ are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they can coexist even, overcoming the radicalism of the either/or logic is a lesson in tolerance, one that I would certainly embrace, with or without the postmodern philosophical stamp on it.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      For heaven’s sake, do try to keep up. Nobody claimed it was “either/or.” I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that we often need knowledge for reasons other than itself. If you want to make an espresso or land on the moon, you’ll need to learn some things to do it. And some of those things learned might be valuable in themselves (i.e. worth knowing even if they served no purpose in the moon landing or espresso making).

      Rather, Ferdinand has repeatedly claimed that knowledge valued “in itself” or “for its own sake” does not exist. So he also doesn’t believe it’s either/or since for him one side of the alternative is a mirage.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Difficult to keep up with you Ernie, with the fast pace of your sarcasm and your standards as to what constitutes ignorance or skepticism, one last comment as far as I am concerned regards your use of the term ‘nihilism’ which is rather cavalier one, just like your character (coherence is always worth a praise). For a definition: http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

        Happy new Year!

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          So you claim my use of “nihilism” is “cavalier” and the attempt to school me with a web page (written by some clown who knows almost nothing) presenting a definition the first clause of which is:

          “Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless…”

          That is precisely my claim about Ferdinand as made in this comment.

          It’s unfortunate that the author followed this perfectly serviceable definition with a non-sequitur about knowledge and communication, but that’s the way they do it at “Embry-Riddle University.” Lest you think I’m being a snob, you might just want to check out their website. Then tell me why I really need to take on board what this guy has to say about nihilism…

      • no-name Says:

        Ernie Ball notes, “Ferdinand has repeatedly claimed that knowledge valued “in itself” or “for its own sake” does not exist.”

        It’s possible to imagine that the president of a university must maintain a consistent line in public on certain topics, given that the president may feel compelled to take that line internally, in the role of ultimate line-manager for the institution. A university president can be anticipated to have both brilliant and mediocre researchers to look after. One can imagine that the president has some sympathy for the notion that a brilliant researcher should be encouraged to pursue knowledge for its own sake, knowing that the brilliant researcher will be pursuing knowledge that few, if any, other people will have had access to before. At the same time, one can imagine that the university president would be concerned that a mediocre researcher in search of knowledge for its own sake would be likely to focus either on problems whose answers are well known or those that even brilliant researchers think not possible to solve. Given distributions of ability in society, an arbitrary university president has more mediocre researchers to worry about than brilliant ones. It is therefore in the interest of easy governance for the university president to stick unwaveringly to the line that knowledge “for its own sake” is a silly concept at best and empty at worst. By sticking to this line, such a university president can encourage her or his charges to always first study the potential commercial (or other) impacts of solving problems before thinking about the problems in themselves, as a way of harnessing the creative intellectual energies that those researchers do have into effort towards a smaller set of topics of study (the university president may or may not wish to further narrow topics of study by declaring a small set of areas in which the university aspires to be known as excellent, cutting across the academic disciplines recognized as departments in the institution). The job of such a university president is made easier when the mediocre themselves take up the mantra, “knowledge for its own sake is an empty concept,” on behalf of the university president. Then, in public, such a university president can maintain a consistent line for the benefit of the mediocre, knowing that their peers echo that line, while treating the brilliant a bit differently, more quietly.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          The root problem, of course, is that university presidents see it as their job to “manage” the endeavours of their staff, as if they necessarily knew better what was to be done than did the staff themselves.

          I believe that even the mediocre in the university should be pursuing knowledge without concern for its applications.

          Indeed, it’s hard to see how “mediocre” researchers would fare any better studying the “commercial (or other) impacts of solving problems” than they would studying “the problems in themselves.” Surely, there too, they are likely to head up blind alleys.

          In my experience, the problem with mediocrities in academia is entirely other: whether they think they are pursuing “blue skies” research or applied research, what they are really involved in is groupthink and the endless repetition of whatever paradigm they found themselves in. These people do quite well in a system that rewards simple numbers of publications, since actual thinking is always an obstacle to efficiency.

          • no-name Says:

            Yes, I agree with your assessment here. However, given your earlier assertion (“I also believe, based on our 2011 discussion, that you do in fact believe that some things are good in themselves and either you don’t recognise your own belief or you don’t want to recognise it.”) do you not find yourself wondering what could explain how a university president might be in the position of having such a belief without wanting to admit it? I can imagine other explanations besides the speculation above, but reckon that the set of beliefs hypothetically attributed to such a university president forms a highly plausible ascription.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            I agree that your analysis is plausible as an analysis of the motivations and mindset of university presidents. I don’t think it’s plausible as a diagnosis of what ails universities. I gather from this last comment that you intended it as the former, not the latter.

  5. Al Says:

    I arrive here late and the gaff has been thrashed!
    Happy New Year!


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