Creative dissent versus social inclusion?

For anyone interested in universities, it is worth keeping an eye on the speeches and addresses of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Right from the start of his presidency he has made regular incursions into higher education policy, and has in particular bemoaned the dominant influence as he sees it of market-oriented economic theory.

Last week he returned to this theme in a speech given at the annual conference in Galway of the European Universities Association. He suggested that policy-makers in Europe and elsewhere have this perspective on higher education:

‘[They] tend to view universities in a rather utilitarian way, as foundations of new knowledge and innovative thinking, within the confines of existing trade, commercial and economic paradigms, paradigms that are fading but not without damage to social cohesion.’

According to the President, this is the ‘language and rhetoric of the speculative market’. He added:

‘Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and clarity in written and spoken expression.’

University studies, the President suggested, must be accompanied by the ‘capacity to dissent’.

It is not hard to find this vision of the academy to be rather enticing. But there may be a difficult fact that would compromise the vision of universities as institutions with the primary mission of stimulating creative dissent. The whole package of resources and facilities that the state or its taxpayers or indeed education’s consumers make available is provided on a rather different understanding: that a university education, and the resulting degree, will yield a recognised qualification, and through it employment, and that it will sustain economic growth and technological progress. It is fundamentally utilitarian in nature, and it is so because a university degree has become the essential foundation of growth and prosperity. If you wish to see universities as places of counter-establishment dissent and indifferent creativity, then you need to restore universities as places educating only a small minority (and probably an elite) of the population.

Scholars from medieval times to the 19th century were in a very different place, literally and metaphorically. It is most unlikely that we could (or maybe even should) detach higher education from today’s economic and social targets. But we can still ensure that its practitioners have a new and profound integrity within the fields that they address and that its students expand their minds as well as their opportunities.

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12 Comments on “Creative dissent versus social inclusion?”

  1. Greg Foley Says:

    There should be no either-or here. There is absolutely no reason why universities cannot be places where students (and staff) can think independently and, yet, where students acquire skills that will prepare them for the workplace. One of the problems though is that the university sector has become ‘infected’ with a language (e.g. “learning outcomes” and “graduate attributes”) that gives the impression that we have become little more than corporate training grounds. Thankfully most academics see these things for what they are and just get on with educating their students like they have always done. There tends to be a large disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality, in my view.

    It is noticeable though that academics these days are very quiet and are slow to offer opinions on policy-related matters especially if it involves getting any exposure in the media. It’s hard to know if this is down to fear or whether it is a case of academics just being apathetic about everything that doesn’t involve their own career advancement. I suspect the latter because in my experience, if your have the courage of your convictions, you can say a lot even if ‘management’ would rather you didn’t.

  2. Ian Johnson Says:

    There have been many ill considered comments in this blog over the last few years, but this is so half-baked that it doesn’t merit a response. This is the final straw as far as I’m concerned. It will no longer litter my email inbox.

  3. Mary Gallagher Says:

    As usual, Greg Foley’s comments hit the nail on the head. I’d just add that ‘speaking out’ does have consequences; none of them are enviable but all of them are preferable to living in that craven anti-educational disconnect diagnosed by Greg. It is heartening to see the President using his position to support, albeit implicitly and without acknowledging their existence, that tiny handful of Irish academics who have felt compelled to take the risk of saying in public precisely what he is saying, but in their cases from within the trenches and without bullet-proof vests to protect them from friendly or hostile firepower.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    “If you wish to see universities as places of counter-establishment dissent and indifferent creativity, then you need to restore universities as places educating only a small minority (and probably an elite) of the population.”

    This is an alarming statement, if I understand it correctly, you seem to be proposing an unacceptable trade off: freedom of speech/dissent vs mass higher education. Of course we should not detach higher education from today’s economic and social targets, economic and social factors are themselves cultural entities, and culture is universities’ business, however we cannot forego dissent from taking place in universities, as it did in some form also during medieval times, where universities, as you say, were in a very different place. The utilitarian aspect of higher education cannot be ignored as it is the logic outcome of current public funding patterns, however not at the cost of forsaking the capacity to dissent, without such a capacity I cannot see how students could expand their minds as well as their opportunities.


    • I should emphasise that I didn’t say that,more at any rate I don’t hold that view. There should always be freedom to dissent and to speak without restraint. I was thinking more about the overall institutional strategy.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Hm..not sure the ‘overall institutional strategy’ perspective makes for any impact on the capacity to dissent being more justifiable..

        • Mary Gallagher Says:

          It’s a simple enough equation, surely. Years, if not decades, of pile-driving alignment machinery deep into the University’s structures, systems, processes etc (not to mention minds and spirits) and what do you end up with? The victory of this alignment drive has zilch to do with the difference between wanting to educate the masses as opposed to a small elite. It has to do, rather, with the difference between education and ‘capitalist/corporate grooming’.


          • A good university must always encourage and foster critical and sceptical analysis – and I hope we can still do that! I think the corporate grooming is often pursued by the students rather than by the institution – but not surprisingly, given the pressure to find employment and social standing.


        • I do absolutely agree with you, Anna. Dissent by academics, students and others must always be protected, encouraged even. My point (perhaps badly made) is slightly different: if a university system presented its overall mission as one avoiding economic impact and focusing solely on dissent it wouldn’t attract either a large body of students or the funds to teach them. That is not to say, however, that creativity and dissent should not be presented as important ways of assessing and evaluating the world.

  5. Vincent Says:

    I remember watching Michael D on the BBC when I lived on London. He was a minister for something or other at the time. But he was the first Irish politician that didn’t make me think of some fast talking country auctioneer or bookie.
    Reading your blog and taking ancillary readings from other countries has made me realise that education is big business. And one that really needs to be viewed as such. That it provides for it’s own future with pure research is simply a matter of survival.
    Say, Internet Corp Zippydippydoo decides it needs 50,000 grads in the coming 5 years. At the moment students see an opportunity, universities see a need. Politicians hear about 50k jobs going a begging and bother the uni’s to provide courses. OK. uni’s move at the speed of light and get the course up in 18 months. Great. Now they get to training/educating/developing for the needs of ZDD Corp. But it will take at best another year before they are sending anyone to ZDD, or 30months from start. Remember Zippy said it needs 50 k grads so it draws from other countries the first 25,000 leaving another 25.
    If we take the English situation with fees of 10k plus living of 20k = £30,000 for every student or 750 million.
    Now remember Zippy probably is paying their tax as is usual with such Corps. So why are we gifting £750,000,000.00 for free.
    If you are playing the business card. Then grip those cards and play hardball. For what’s happening now is the big corps and professions are playing the uni’s and your students for fools.

  6. ronnie munck Says:

    If a student handed me a sociology essay on ‘creative dissent versus social inclusion’ I would take them aside and explain about debilitating modernist binary oppositions and asked them to read some post-structuralist stuff. But I suspect this is an old lawyer’s trick here. Of course being critical does not mean restricting access. Of course getting a degree and contributing to ‘growth with equity’ (not the same as the current needs of the actually existing economy) does not preclude critical thinking. Why would it? Anyway Ferdinand I believe Michael D was bending the stick in the other direction a bit and you recognise what he is saying even if its a bit up in the clouds. Glad you opened it up!


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