Education needs freedom from markets

Sat, May 26, 2012, 01:00

Education is not a commodity but a way of liberating people to challenge a consensus

MICHAEL SANDEL is a professor of political philosophy with a profile for which most lecturers would die. He has taught a popular course on justice at Harvard for more than two decades.

The course has also been broadcast on television and on YouTube. Rather than lecturing, he uses Socratic dialogue, questioning and responding to his students. Everyday events are his raw material, and from them he draws out principles of morality and justice.

In his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, he tackles what he calls the “market triumphalism” of recent decades, the article of faith that declares markets are the primary instruments for achieving the public good.

He lists things money can currently buy, from advertising tattooed on someone’s forehead to mercenaries to fight for the US in Afghanistan.

Sandel mildly inquires whether there should be some things money can’t buy and suggests a debate about the moral limits of markets, “where markets serve the public good and where they do not belong”, is overdue.

“Legacy admissions” are one of the targets at which Sandel takes a swipe. In private colleges in the US, quietly and discreetly, admission criteria are relaxed for children of parents who are wealthy and likely to be generous donors. But why do we object to auctioning off college places? After all, if only market criteria apply, there is no problem. But, obviously, it also discriminates against those who cannot afford to pay.

But just because we don’t auction places doesn’t mean we can afford to be sanguine in Ireland. Higher Education Authority chief executive Tom Boland’s statement this week that there was “no way” colleges could continue to rely largely on exchequer funding will strike terror into the hearts of middle-class parents.

The so-called registration fees were already substantial. Even if new fees are means-tested, there will be a fear “cliff edges” will arise, because relatively minor differences in income will cause people to be unable to afford college.

For people from families in which there is no tradition of college attendance, restoration of fees will be an even greater disincentive.

Sadly, it was the middle classes who benefited most from the abolition of fees. There was no major influx of students who were the “first generation to go to university”. Encouraging first-generation students is more difficult than just abolishing fees. Students need to be identified and mentored early in secondary school, and supported well when in college.

There may be an argument for restoring fees for those who can afford them if the reintroduction is carefully managed, including substantial grants for the poorer student.

But how likely is that? Restoration of tuition fees will not address the colleges’ funding difficulties. While many colleges want the return of fees, it was to supplement government funding, not as a measure to cope with a rise of 30 per cent in the numbers of students while central funding continues to be cut.

But the funding crisis hides another, deeper crisis. What are universities for? At the same time as tuition fees were flagged, the HEA announced a number of reviews, including one to look at “how third-level provision matches the needs of the economy”. Of course, universities must take the economy into account, but is that all they are to do? The current state of economic forecasting could be summed up as: no one knows anything about what will happen tomorrow, much less in a year’s time.

Therefore, preparing people who can think, who are agile, flexible and capable of generating new ideas, might be the greatest service possible both to the community and the economy.

Third level is not about producing widgets, but educating people. After last year’s Hunt report on higher education, much unease was expressed by academics about the dominance of “management speak” when it comes to running universities.

What the Hunt report called “facilitating employer input into curriculum design and development” came in for a great deal of criticism.

Given that the Nyberg report suggested herd mentality, or groupthink, played a large part in our economic collapse, it is surely more important than ever to develop critical thinking, and to foster creativity and imagination among students.

Is that helped or hindered by university departments that are now drowning in paperwork? Traditionally, third-level institutions were collegial, but that model is rapidly being replaced by bureaucratic mechanisms with a huge emphasis on paper trails for planning and evaluation.

Given that so many of our business people and opinion formers went through the Irish third-level system, it is clear it failed to produce the type of leaders who could see when disaster was looming or who were equipped to navigate that disaster when it happened. Was that in part because even in the boom times there was such a focus on facilitating employers and the research needs of industry?

In order to build a sustainable future, we need to listen to people such as Prof Sandel. Education is not a commodity to be sold, or something to be moulded to the needs of a particular market demand, but a way of freeing people to think, be creative and challenge an unthinking consensus.

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