Like many young people in Ireland, it takes a lot to get me on the streets in protest. My student activist muscles are mostly flabby and unused; too weak to hold up a picket sign, too stiff to march. But this Monday’s launch of the Defend the University Charter for Action (covered by the Irish Times) re-activated the dormant impulse to indignation.This campaign will resonate with students, but not because they dislike their university or because they don’t value their lecturers. Quite the opposite, in fact. Those who truly value their alma mater will be tired of a learning environment in which the ultimate goal is employability. More and more, rising fees and a stagnant jobs market force students to perform a cost-benefit analysis on their education. They must ask themselves, ‘Am I getting value for money?,’ instead of enjoying engaging intellectually with their coursework. Of course students must be realistic about their post-university prospects, but never to the detriment of their curiosity and inquisitiveness.Irish universities are following their UK- and US-counterparts down a path of increasing commercialisation, offering courses and qualifications like a catalogue of products. A Masters or Doctorate becomes a necessary gateway to employment rather than a chance to delve deeper into the subjects by which you were most intrigued. It is, as Professor Mary Gallagher said at the launch, the notion that on receipt of the relevant fees, an education will be credited to your account accordingly.
Gaining some distance from the university and entering the jobs market only makes these trends clearer. As a recent graduate of European Studies, I am often told that languages will look great on my CV. But this attitude completely ignores the educational and personal journey involved in learning a language: discovering a new country, its customs and people.
This capacity to speak a language (or compose an essay; or critically analyse a text; or write computer code) should not be valued for the most insignificant of the functions it serves: a skill to be added on a CV. As the Defend the University Charter says, “the main aim of teaching is the dissemination of knowledge and the fostering of creativity, and is not just about increasing ‘human capital’.”
Although the above issues will mostly concern students, they are not the only people struggling in the current university system.
For example, Aline Courtois and Theresa O’Keefe of the Third-level Workplace Watch Collective also attended the launch where they explained the precarious situation of third-level workers. Many of these employees work on zero-hours contracts and there is a chronic lack of opportunities for post-doctoral students. This job insecurity breeds fear and with it, silence – it is hard to freely criticise an institution if you are seeking to employment within it.
Monday’s launch saw lively debate from vocal and passionate attendees, yet their cause has gone largely unnoticed thus far. Although the Defend the University campaign is new, its arguments are not. Professor Kathleen Lynch wrote on these same issues (New Managerialism in Irish universities) a decade ago, while two others in the room (Dr Brendan Walsh and Professor Mary Gallagher) have also published books on these issues.
As Louise O’Reilly of SIPTU reminded, our society is currently suffering the effects of a period in which people did not freely challenge the status quo. The mission of any university should be to protect free and critical thought – and this includes the right of students and academic staff to speak out as they see Irish universities betraying their founding principles.