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.