Universities are preoccupied with market growth as if educators were stocks and shares

Diarmaid Ferriter: Even before Covid-19 third level faced threats from market-based ideas

How old-fashioned it appears now to strive for a university  with pride in its self-made identity and producing independent thinkers.

How old-fashioned it appears now to strive for a university with pride in its self-made identity and producing independent thinkers.

 

I suspect many teachers are recoiling from the phrase “the new normal”. There is nothing normal about remote teaching and the idea that it can become a long-term replacement for the classroom or lecture hall is anathema to most in education. Also worrying is the possibility that those in charge of third-education institutions, even more starved of resources than they were before Covid-19, will see remote or “blended” teaching as a new, cheaper, streamlined way of delivering “output”, rendering the university campus almost redundant.

Arising out of the current crisis, there is a danger of a whole new language around online educational “provision” being added to the layer of corporate management speak that has long pervaded the Irish education system. In 2015, a senior UCD administrator sent this message to the university staff: “Strategic Initiative 6 is concerned with consolidating and supporting efforts across our community to enhance agility and effectiveness in university process improvement, thereby continuously furthering value for the UCD community and process beneficiaries whilst simultaneously empowering faculty and staff to proactively engage in continuous process improvement initiatives”.

Those with a high pain threshold can reread that “sentence” several times, but it will remain what it is: a grotesque subversion of the notion of a third-level community. This jargon is a product of a trend historian Tom Dunne had written about two years earlier: “like a deadly, odourless gas, the elements of a quiet revolution have seeped through every area of Irish education during recent years, poisoning the atmosphere . . . a relentless application of market principles . . . has shifted the focus of education from the development of the individual and the benefits flowing from this to society to the service of the economy, narrowly conceived”.

‘Service providers’

This took on added pace in the aftermath of the last economic collapse with an insistence that “applied research” needed to be the main priority. Teachers were increasingly seen as “service providers”, the students as “service users” and the university leaders and reams of bureaucrats as “managers”. The casualisation of academic labour and short-term contracts further embedded an insecurity that is the antithesis of an academic “community” and hinders creativity. There has also been a preoccupation with what is offensively labelled “performance for growth” by university management as if the educators were stocks and shares. Parallel to this are obsessions with “impact”, “globalisation” and ensuring a flow of money from China. Recently, UCD management sought to change the university’s policy on academic freedom to allow for “different interpretations” of the concept due to its links with China, the idea being that if UCD continues to “strengthen its international engagement” and partnerships with other universities overseas, it should seek to accommodate “divergent approaches to academic freedom”. After a backlash, the proposed changes were withdrawn.

When I was an undergraduate, the president of UCD was a philosopher. The chances of such an appointment today are negligible. How old-fashioned it appears now to strive for a university that is a pleasant place in which to work and study, with pride in its self-made identity and producing independent thinkers who can conserve, create and transmit knowledge.

Public value

There is an onus on those in humanities – as in other areas – to effectively communicate the public value of their research; the university is supposed to be a public good and those in it have responsibilities as public servants. But so do those administering education and now is the time to think about that.

From mid-March, educators responded to an emergency as best they could by switching everything online to get the academic year over the line. And that seemed to be the overwhelming priority; in the same way, the discourse about this year’s Leaving Cert students seemed to be solely about the exams and what course place might come after, relegating discussion of the problems in the system as it stands, with or without Covid-19. A Higher Education Authority Report of 2018 highlighted that one in six third-level students drops out of their course during their first year, and as pointed out by Brian Mooney this week, that figure is likely to increase due to the panic and uncertainty prevalent this year for those hoping to go on to third level. An acceptance, or worse still, embracing of remote teaching as the norm can only exacerbate that problem; students need to learn and thrive through direct engagement not only with their course material but also with their lecturers and fellow students.

It is not more technology and regularising of remoteness that is needed coming out of this crisis. It is imperative that our universities are properly funded, but we do not need a new obsession with what I saw this week described as “crisis-driven innovation; adaptation through technology”. The danger is that this will further entrench the notion of “delivering” rather than teaching.

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