Universities must safeguard intellectual vitality

OPINION: Those who run higher education intend it to serve the economy, a far cry from the republic of knowledge

OPINION:Those who run higher education intend it to serve the economy, a far cry from the republic of knowledge

THIS ELECTION could be regarded as a test run about the direction higher education should take. So far, there is not much that gives cause for hope.

According to Albert Einstein, academic freedom allows pursuit of truth as the individual scientist sees fit. Einstein’s definition contrasts with those higher education managers in Ireland who have successfully conquered universities and who decided it is now time to give liberal education the coup de grace. The authors of the Hunt report and, recently, UCD’s leading authorities (as communicated in a recent Croke Park implementation plan) make clear they think it is increasingly up to them to decide what kind of truth should be pursued – a violation of anything that Einstein argued for.

It seems the gloves are off and that for the philistines who run the higher education system, the economic crisis provides the ideal opportunity to streamline the universities as they see fit. As part of the legitimation process, this attempt at gaining more power is sold to the academic community and public as serving the greater good: since the country is in crisis and all have to fear for their jobs so should academics.

But let’s have no illusions. What is really at stake here is that an old egalitarian ideal of the republic of knowledge is being perverted. It is not the ingredient of competition but the elements of fear and control that are being introduced here and which are absolutely detrimental to any pursuit of knowledge. In the context of higher education and in the pursuit of knowledge, fear and control mean the end of any intelligent undertaking.

Why does managerialism in Ireland always use the worst bureaucratic examples – Australia, New Zealand and the UK (less so the top US universities) – as “best practice” cases for reform? Surely, it must have something to do with the mediocre minds who occupy key posts in the Republic’s education authority and universities.

Indeed, few of the university presidents, vice-presidents and the top brass civil servants who steer higher education ever had a career outside the English-language speaking world and are therefore hardly familiar with the practice of a well-functioning university and higher education system such as exists, for example, in Switzerland, Sweden and to some extent in the US or Canada.

Apart from a few exceptions, the monolinguism and monoculturalism that one can encounter in the elite structure of higher education management is almost proverbial and would be an explanation of why no other alternatives are discussed. Despite the rhetoric of internationalisation, the intellectual equivalents of the Berties and the Biffos continue to dictate policy and practice in higher education, including some of the barely disclosed forms of intellectual cronyism.

Let’s be honest: there never was a glorious golden age when higher education in Ireland was truly liberal. In one way or another, universities in Ireland have directly served either the union with the UK, a religion or the Irish State. Now it’s the economy, argues the Hunt report and various university implementation plans.

What is needed is more autonomy for the universities, not more managerialism. But that also throws up the question who should be at the helm? The best way to serve economic and intellectual recovery is not through hiring more suits and offering even more instrumental hands-on, skills-based training but through distancing oneself from narrowly defined immediate economic gains.

Such undertakings are detrimental to any critical thinking. The best prepared for emerging or radically changed markets are students with a good liberal education which can be put to flexible use, not a narrow vision of how to fill the pockets as soon as possible.

In a recent book, The Great American University, author Jonathan Cole has summed up the experience of leading research universities in the United States in 12 central rules that could be applied to any university system, including that of Ireland:

* Promote universalism so that merit prevails and only impersonal criteria are used in establishing scientific facts;

* Favour organised scepticism and question anything that resembles dogma;

* Create new knowledge through the provision of a decent infrastructure including laboratories and research libraries;

* Guarantee free and open communication of ideas and allow for criticism through open and public exchange;

* Advocate genuine disinterestedness so that individuals do not profit financially from their research;

* Promote free inquiry and academic freedom so that orthodoxies are constantly questioned;

* Base research on international communities that communicate openly with each other;

* Use peer-review systems so that arguments are tested by the best in the field;

* Work for the common good so that a more enlightened public can emerge;

* Ensure that governance involves the “company of equals”, making sure that academics have a significant voice in running the institution they are part of;

* Promote intellectual progeny so that the next academic generation can emerge;

* Finally, maintain the intellectual vitality of the community by attracting the best minds.

If an institution applies these core values then it will succeed.

If we wish to improve our universities and pursue excellence, following his basic maxims, creating the right environment for them to flourish is crucial. Anything less would mean blindly following the princes of darkness, as seen in the Hunt report, university implementation plans after Croke Park and soundbites from political parties.

Andreas Hess is senior lecturer at the school of sociology at UCD