President Michael D Higgins gave a stirring address at an online conference on academic freedom this week. He suggested we are in danger of losing not just academic freedom at the level of the individual scholar but of losing the institution of the university itself.
In melancholic lines reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going, he wondered whether the world’s great universities, rather like the stones left behind on the monastic sites, would become in time merely tourist attractions? Will visitors be told tales of where lectures were once given, and brilliant expositions encountered, rather like tourists tramping through the cloisters of abbeys being told of where vespers was once sung?
While forgiving the rhetorical flourish that ignores that vespers is sung daily in abbeys today, the President has a point. He blames market forces and utilitarianism, which have led university leaders to describe themselves as chief executives of multimillion-euro enterprises, rather than as academics first and foremost.
Again, he is not wrong. Nor is he wrong about the way research grants go to projects with tangible economic benefits, rather than on curiosity-driven research that expands our understanding of the world. Nor is he wrong about grade inflation, and the impact of the gig economy on the job security of university lecturers.
The problem is that chronic underfunding is leading not only to hard-nosed, business-led utilitarianism but ever-closer links with regimes with dubious human-rights records.
The President was speaking at a conference organised by Scholars at Risk, Europe concerning academic freedom and intellectual dissent. There are places in the world where speaking out as an academic risks dismissal, prison or even death.
For example, university teachers are among those targeted by China’s suppression of Uighur Muslims. There is credible evidence of perhaps a million people forcibly incarcerated in so-called vocational training camps, followed by mass transfers of labour.
Up to 2019, the US-based Uyghur Human Rights Project identified 338 intellectuals who had been interned, imprisoned or forcibly disappeared since April 2017, among them 61 university professors and 96 students. The project identified five intellectuals who had died in custody or shortly after release.
Chinese multinational technology company Huawei is set to invest €80 million in Irish research and development over the next two years. Huawei works with a number of Irish third-level institutions, including Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University, University of Limerick, University College Dublin and University College Cork.
In 2019, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute raised concerns about Huawei’s involvement in the surveillance of the Uighur minority and the use by three of Huawei’s subcontractors of forced Uighur labour.
Last December, Huawei wrote to Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, requesting his full support in "mitigating the damage done" by an academic article by Dr Richard Maher which suggested Huawei had "murky ties" to the Chinese government that left it susceptible to being pressured.
UCD president Andrew Deeks described a letter by UCD academics expressing disquiet about Huawei's contact with Coveney as an overreaction to Huawei's overreaction.
In April, a UCD working group had to back down from a proposed change to its academic freedom policy to allow for “different interpretations”. Academics responded robustly and the proposed change was dropped but it is frightening that it was even proposed.
China is at the forefront of academic research in many disciplines and the second-biggest economy in the world. The possibilities for collaboration would be exciting if the price tag were not selective blindness to human-rights abuses.
Students from outside the European Economic Area, including large numbers from China, pay vastly higher fees. There was widespread worry when the pandemic prevented international students from coming here, thereby leading to even greater funding shortfalls.
Given that it will take years for the Irish economy to recover from the effects of the pandemic, financial pressures on universities will only get worse.
As Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of history at UCD said, it raises questions over whether UCD would be prepared to forgo significant funds to preserve a robust commitment to uncompromised freedom of expression? I would add especially given that it may lead to job losses and the inability to provide the same range of courses.
UCC abandoned a collaboration with a Chinese university but every college of the NUI has close links with China, ranging from joint colleges set up in China in conjunction with Chinese educational institutions to encouraging Chinese students to study here.
One of the other speakers at the academic freedom conference, Sinéad O’Gorman, suggested university rankings should be tied to academic freedom. She pointed out that China’s universities are climbing rapidly in third-level rankings but are at the bottom of the academic freedom rankings.
It is a modest proposal but even that is likely to provoke angry reactions from China.
The President had another modest proposal: that every university teach every student a module on the role of a university. Sadly, while market-led utilitarianism rules, such a course is likely to inspire only cynicism in students. However, it might lead to much-needed questioning among those who shape our third-level institutions.