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.