Universities are under increasing pressure to produce graduates solely for the labour market and face an "intellectual crisis" over their role in society, President Michael D Higgins has said.
Speaking at the annual conference of the European Universities Association in NUI Galway, Mr Higgins said higher education has a crucial role to play in laying the foundations of a society that is more inclusive, participatory and equal.
However, an ever-increasing focus on producing graduates for the market was bringing universities down a “precarious road” at the expense of fostering life-enhancing skills such as critical thinking and creativity.
Universities, he said, needed to be allowed to flourish as spaces with the intellectual courage to reject dominant ideologies and encourage the seeking of truth from fact.
“We must first recognise that we live at a time when the language and rhetoric of the speculative market has become embedded in the educational culture and has brought some university practices down a precarious road,” Mr Higgins said.
“That reductive view has brought us, I believe, to a time of great questioning about the purpose of the university – much of which has been corrosive – and perhaps even to a moment of intellectual crisis.”
The President said there was a challenge too for universities to recover the “moral purpose of original thought and emancipatory scholarship”.
In crafting a response to the European crisis, he said higher education must insist on remaining open to originality in theory and research and committed to humanistic values in teaching.
“It is through the encouragement of creative and free thinking that our universities acquired their status in the past, and correctly claim it today as unique institutions that accept the responsibility of enabling and empowering citizens to participate fully and effectively at all levels of society,” he said.
“This creative function must be cherished, nurtured and encouraged.” The President said the role of the university in enabling citizens to develop the tools to address the great challenges of our time – such as global poverty, climate change and sustainability – was vital.
He warned that the relationship between a university and students cannot be reduced to that of a “provider of narrow professional training”, disengaged from independent thought and scholarly engagement.
Any abandoning or relegation of the humanities in our academic institutions would be seen by future generations as a “betrayal of the purpose of education”, Mr Higgins said.
“If we wish to develop independent thinkers and questioning, engaged citizens, our universities must, while providing excellence in professional training, avoid an emphasis that is solely or exclusivity on that which is measurable and is demanded by short-term outcomes.
“They must allow for the patience and the peace that is required for memorable university teaching and research.
“Fostering the capacity to dissent is another core function of the university. Third-level scholarship has always had, and must retain, a crucial role in creating a society in which the critical exploration of alternatives to any prevailing hegemony is encouraged.
“Universities must surely be facilitated and supported, made free and funded, so that they may preserve their role as special places for the generation of alternatives in science, culture and philosophy.
“They must be allowed to flourish as spaces which develop that intellectual courage which allows the rejection of exclusive or excluding ideologies, and encourages the seeking of truth from fact and the production of alternative solutions and action.”