Posted tagged ‘President of Ireland’

A presidential view: university metrics and the rise of mediocrity?

July 9, 2018

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has not been reluctant to enter contentious debate during the course of his term of office to date. Most recently, at the launch of the Cambridge University Press History of Ireland, the President offered the following view on universities as comfortable hosts for academic studies:

‘Within the universities, humanities have borne the brunt of the vicissitudes of new funding models, as resources are increasingly channelled towards areas which, it is suggested, will yield a return, at least in the short-term, to the university in terms of increased funding. Much of this is facilitated by an abuse of metrics; an ideological fad that views the use of metrics of academic work, not as a contribution or an instrument of knowledge but as a conforming bending of the knee to an insufficiently contested neo-utilitarian mediocrity.’

The President has of course on previous occasions offered a similar analysis of the direction of higher education, and it is also clear that his view has support amongst a good number of academics; this article in the Irish Times is a good example. The English Campaign for the Public University also offers very similar views.

There is in such campaigns sometimes an element of irritation that taxpayer funding should come with strings attached, and in so far as this is part of the complaint it cannot easily be upheld. There are few areas of public life supported by exchequer funds that can still expect to be outside of value-for-money scrutiny, however lofty the objectives of the funded bodies. What is perhaps a better focus of analysis would be what strings can acceptably be attached to educational funding, and of course the more general question of what kind and volume of public funding is required or justifiable.

The resistance to outcome-driven funding as a matter of principle is, I would think, bound to fail: the spirit of the age is against such resistance. The better argument would be about what outcomes are an appropriate subject of targeting and monitoring. For example, is it justifiable to reject targets for socio-economic inclusion in higher education (the access agenda)? Should research performance be entirely a matter of individual choice? How much weight do we give student opinion on quality and content of courses?

These are complex questions, but probably not questions that should be dismissed with charges of a subversion of higher education by neoliberal ideologues. Rather they are questions of policy that have never got to be the subject of agreement between the wider academy, their leaders, and government. Universities will never be run again as they were in the late 19th century; nor should they be, as they catered solely for a social elite. So we need to find a new social contract between the academy and the taxpayer. That is now the task.

President Higgins is right to raise these matters. But the ensuing debate needs to be conducted outside the trenches of hardened opinion. On all sides.


Politics and markets and public intellectuals

February 22, 2012

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, this week used the occasion of a speech delivered at the London School of Economics to develop a little more his theme of a society that has lost its way, and of an academic profession that should accept the responsibility of restoring it to intellectual health. His starting point, which he had already given an outing a few weeks ago when conferred with an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland, is that a political orthodoxy of unfettered markets took hold of public discourse and policy and led to the recent economic disaster. He attributes this movement largely to to the late Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, whom he credits with the view that markets are necessarily rational and that they should be ‘unregulated’. The President continued:

‘We have, as a consequence, been living through a period of extreme individualism, a period where the concept of society itself has been questioned. The public space in so many countries of the EU has been commodified, and it is as calculating rational choice maximizers, rather than as citizens, we have been invited to view our neighbours. That is the mark of our times, the hegemonic version, by which it is suggested, we live our lives together. Our existence is assumed to be, is defined as, competing individual actors at times neurotic in our insatiable anxieties for consumption…’

In fact what President Higgins attributes to Hayek could be questioned. In his seminal book The Road to Serfdom, Hayek confirmed his preference for as little state regulation as possible, but also stated that where markets are distorted or abused state intervention is necessary. And in Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek argued not that markets are rational, but that people and organisations experiencing fully competitive markets – i.e. with proper levels of competition – will tend to behave rationally. Hayek was indeed the high priest of neoliberalism, but his views were a little more nuanced than suggested in the President’s speech.

As for society, it was indeed questioned, in particular in the famous (or infamous) statement by Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing; but whether it was forced to give way to a set of purely commodified relationships is much more questionable.

As I have mentioned before, the desire on the part of President Higgins to stimulate debate and encourage academic leadership in this debate is wholly to be welcomed. The issues he raises and the questions he asks are good ones. He is justified in encouraging debate about the nature and purpose of society. And he is right to highlight the role of the public intellectual, and thus of the academic community.

I am less persuaded by his own analysis of these issues. His thesis, that we are all the victims of a fashion for unregulated markets, is perhaps questionable. As neoliberal policies took root from the 1980s, markets were opened up but were then subjected to significant regulation; indeed the levels of regulation increased substantially after the Enron and WorldCom disasters of the last decade. Whether this regulation was appropriate or good is another matter; there is actually one school of thought that there was too much of it, meaning that some of it had become too complex to be effective. Another view is that there was adequate regulation, but that it was inadequately enforced.

All of this is open to debate, and academics should indeed seek to lead it. But that debate will be better if its basic assumptions are not too simplistic. President Higgins has a significant opportunity to prompt a national and even international dialogue. I would hope that his own contribution takes account of the considerable complexities that got us where we are, and from where we want to escape.

In search of the lost paradigm

January 26, 2012

For an academic community, there is always something uplifting about the arrival of one of its respected members in high office. In Ireland this happened last year with the election of Michael D. Higgins as President. As those who know President Higgins will testify, despite his long and distinguished political career he does not hide his academic credentials – nor should he, for they are genuinely impressive. Yesterday provided the President with an opportunity to display them in an obvious setting, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland in a ceremony in Dublin Castle.

However, I am not really intending to describe or comment upon the ceremony. Rather, I was struck by the theme the President struck in his address to the convocation, which apart from some reminiscences of his life as an academic in Galway took him to a detailed and scholarly exploration of the role of the university in changing times. The speech (which can be found here) is worth reading in full, but let me focus on what was really his major point. He suggested that public and economic policy was hijacked over recent decades by a particular school of thought, and that this exercise in intellectual aggression produced both an impotence of academic discourse and, in the ‘real’ world of people’s lives, great hardship and deprivation and, ultimately, economic collapse. Following the same trail of thought the President suggests that an invigorated and independent academic community willing to ‘recover the unities of scholarship, to strike out for originality, seek as comparative standards the great moments of intellectual work from around the world’ will be able to make its powerful contribution in the recovery of a more humane political and economic settlement.

There is much in his speech worth supporting, and in particular it must be right to encourage the academy to take its place in leading genuinely independent and scholarly debate that actually addresses the issues in the life of the community. But there is also room for some notes of caution. First, I am not at all sure about the President’s focus on what he describes as a ‘new and largely uncontested paradigm’, which he attacks strongly but never quite explains. He references Friedrich von Hayek and the idea of ‘unrestrained market dominance’, and the notion of the total ‘rationality’ of markets. I always used to forbid students from using the (more often than not misused) word ‘paradigm’, which too often gets conscripted to a weak argument, but leaving that aside, there is in all this just a little bit of an unrestrained caricature which sits on top of much more complex realities. Nobody that I am familiar with has ever advocated ‘unrestrained’ markets, nor was the period that ended with the banking disasters characterised by lack of regulation as is sometimes suggested; it was just regulation that (as is so often the case) didn’t work properly; but there was actually lots of it.

We are all vulnerable to the seductive but damaging charms of nostalgia, and often we are tempted to believe that in another age they did things better and got it right. Then we forget that so much has changed. The period after World War 2 which saw the strong development of the welfare state and what the Germans called the ‘social market economy’ was one in which national markets could be easily protected, and therefore social regulations could be sustained without damaging employment, because technology, and information technology in particular, had not developed to the extent we know it now. We cannot return to that time or its basic methods. A global economy is here to stay, at least for all those who don’t want to accept spectacular poverty as a price for not having globalisation.

But then again, while I wish he had left out the search for an ideological rogues’ gallery who can be fingered as the culprits for all recent woes, President Higgins is still right in his broad message. We are where we are, and we must succeed in the economic world we are in; technological innovation is not our enemy – but…: we must engage in a search for a way in which this world can be made into a place that values and enhances the life of the community, and in which academics pursue themes of critical scholarly inquiry that has the capacity to change lives. This is not a return to some lost golden age. It is the search for a new one.