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“I have claimed elsewhere that the native Irish education system possessed pre-eminently two characteristics: first, freedom for the individual, and, secondly, an adequate inspiration. Without these two things you cannot have education, no matter how you may elaborate educational machinery, no matter how you may multiply educational programmes. And because those two things are pre-eminently lacking in what passes for education in Ireland, we have in Ireland strictly no education system at all, nothing that by any extension of the meaning of words can be called an education system. We have an elaborate machinery for teaching persons certain subjects and the teaching is done more or less efficiently; more efficiently, I imagine, than such teaching is done in England or in America. We have three universities and our boards of education. We have some thousands of buildings, large and small. We have an army of inspectors, mostly overpaid. We have a host of teachers, mostly underpaid. We have a Compulsory Education Act. We have the grave and bulky code of the Commissioners of National Education, and the slim impertinent pamphlet which enshrines the wisdom of the Commissioner of Intermediate Education. We have a vast deal more in the shape of educational machinery and stage properties. But we have, I repeat, no education system, and only in isolated places have we any education. The essentials are lacking” Padraig Pearse, The Murder Machine, 1913

There is today, one hundred years later, widespread consensus across the educational and political worlds that the Irish university is in crisis. Most often, the crisis is diagnosed as a funding one and, indeed, the continuous bleeding of the system is at the root of the present crisis. But we believe there is also a crisis of perspectives, a failure of the imagination and an un-thought-out turn towards marketisation and managerialism which will destroy Irish higher education if it is allowed to pose as the only game in town.

The basic question we are posing is whether we all – both as concerned citizens and as higher education professionals – wish the university to be run according to the same business logic as a profit- making enterprise or, whether, we should seek to follow a public service or social accountability model and logic for the university. The choice is quite stark; the consequences of the debate for our students are incalculable.

We could just endorse the new managerialism – not the same as efficient management of course – and its vain chase after dubious rankings at home and abroad, or we can go back to basics and ask what a university should be about. It would be a rare business, indeed, where those in the business and who have the expertise -academics in this case- were not the drivers of that (re) visioning exercise. That, we argue is the key task of the day in Irish higher education.

Martin Woolf, Financial Times columnist who once ardently supported the free market policies of the 1990’s now argues that ‘Public goods are the building blocks of civilisation’. Yet one of the central public goods – higher education – is everywhere under attack. There seems to be little understanding of how the university improves the quality of public life. In Ireland, the discourse is particularly impoverished given the context of a long and rich tradition of a thriving university system.

At present a narrow, self-limiting strategy prevails in the Irish university, focused on the marketisation of knowledge, teaching and research and the reduction of those who work in the universities to mere service providers. If we believe that higher education is a public good this bid to privatise it – after the collapse of this economic model in the real world – will not deliver the much vaunted ‘innovation’ it promises. Indeed, real social innovation is conspicuous by its absence in most current statements on the future of the Irish university.

The recent report Horizon Scanning: What Higher Education Will Look Like in 2020 (by the prestigious Observatory on Borderless Higher Education) argues in this regard that the downside of the turn towards the market is that ‘the ideal of higher education as a public good is under threat’. Yet greater public support for the university will not only increase access and participation by those who cannot afford to attend university, but it will also enhance the ‘competitiveness’ of the Irish university system as a whole. This is not special pleading, it is common sense.

Research at universities is largely paid for through the public purse, either directly or through the likes of public trusts and the vital tax exemptions that universities enjoy. Yet overall, the prevailing university mission seems to be to simply provide research back-up to the private sector, in less than transparent partnerships where the private/public divide is somewhat blurred. We need to ask bluntly ‘Who is publicly funded research serving?’ The current mission drift of the Irish university towards ‘enterprise’ seems to ignore knowledge generation for the public good as the basis for public support.

In terms of teaching, undoubtedly the main current innovation centres around on-line learning. It is not a Luddite reaction to query where this is all heading towards. Sometimes an outdated transmission model of teaching seems to underlie what we might call the new technological opportunism which sees a technical fix for what is a funding and commitment problem. One recent report concludes that ‘it is likely that many thousands of teaching jobs will have been lost in the US by 2020’. This is bad news not only for the lecturers concerned, but for the quality of teaching where face-to-face contact is central to knowledge formation and the development of critical thinking abilities.

In the early 20th Century there was a dramatic turn in university strategy towards viewing scholarship and teaching as producing knowledge that would advance social progress and alleviate human suffering. At present, conversely, a narrow market logic prevails which says we should simply teach and research what is profitable for private enterprise. We thus propose that we need to explore what a public serving university in the early 21st Century might look like. That is a challenge but also a huge opportunity to create a university fit-for-purpose. In times of crisis social innovation can thrive we find historically.

As ‘Horizon Scanning: What Higher Education Will Look Like in 2020’ argues, in terms of the strategic choices we now need to make, ‘Technology is not in the driving seat; people are. Institutions and stakeholders have options’. We are simply saying that another university is possible and there is no shortage of imagination among those who are working in, or are concerned with, the future of the Irish university. We now ask all those studying, researching, teaching and working at universities to join us in this debate: let a hundred flowers bloom!  

Mike Jennings, General Secretary, IFUT Louise O’Reilly,Education Sector National Organiser, SIPTU
Dr. Rose Malone, President, IFUT Professor Ronnie Munck, DCU, SIPTU