Universities need funding, but they also need a rethink of their role in society

21 Oct 2019

Trinity College Dublin. Image: © Madrugada Verde/Stock.adobe.com

There are good reasons to increase funding to higher education in Ireland, but rankings should not be one of them, writes Elaine Burke.

“Academics all over the world should weep for the destruction of the concept of the university that has occurred in so many places, which has led to little less than the degradation of learning.”

This was among many strong words delivered by President Michael D Higgins in a speech titled Humanitarianism and the Public Intellectual in Times of Crisis at a distinguished lecture in Fordham University on 30 September.

Higgins, who himself lectured at universities for years, has criticised universities for their inordinate focus on business and commercial interests over education and civic engagement, producing industry-ready professionals over critically engaged citizens.

“Some public intellectuals have been seduced by the reliance on corporate power; other academics, I suggest, have drifted into a cosy consensus that accepts the failed paradigm of society and economy as the only model we have, or might have, of operating internationally,” he said.

 ‘University ranking schemes are private entities that are grounded in sketchy methodologies and are an existential threat to universities’

This was not the first time Higgins voiced this critique of academia. Last year, he delivered a similar speech to an audience of academics and historians at the launch of the Cambridge History of Ireland, which prompted a written response from University College Dublin lecturers Dr Áine Mahon and Dr Shane Bergin.

Following the 2018 speech, Mahon and Bergin described Irish universities as “in thrall to the behemoth of neoliberalism”, existing “at the troubled epicentre of utility and enterprise”, and called Higgins “a crucial voice for the contemporary university”.

The market model of higher education, they explained, is the result of decreased public funding spurring on economically driven decision-making as a means for universities’ survival. Though, for survival, we could perhaps substitute growth, as universities could probably sustain themselves without these pursuits, but what is existence in capitalism if it’s not growth?

Universities are indeed aligned in the argument for increased public funding, but Trinity College Dublin provost Dr Patrick Prendergast has couched this call in the need to boost international rankings.

In the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Trinity landed in 164th place, a significant drop from 120th the previous year. The university’s disappointed response pointed to Ireland’s investment in education compared to other countries in the rankings and called for a national strategy to reverse Irish universities’ slide in the tables.

Yet many observers – including Higgins and Bergin – have long been critical of university league tables. After the latest round, Bergin called out university ranking schemes as “private entities that are grounded in sketchy methodologies and are an existential threat to universities”.

I find myself in complete agreement with Bergin’s claim that appeals to increase funding in order to ascend an obscure ranking system is crazy and, as Higgins warns, loses sight of the purpose of educational institutions. Instead of challenging grand visions of knowledge and discovery, universities have become sharply focused on rank by restrictive metrics and profitability by commercial interests.

The detrimental impacts of this model for higher education institutions are already seen in the transactional language we use around education. It is something to be invested in, to produce graduates primed for industry. The intense marketing of universities as a product to its potential customers is as brazen as any commercial entity.

‘There’s so much emphasis on bringing international students to study here, but not much support when you need to find a job’

Absolutely, give higher education more funding, but perhaps we need to restructure how that money is spent. Not all of this public money should go towards applied research for private profit. Nor on bloated salaries for an elite few academics. What about fairer salaries for both early-stage researchers and public engagement roles?

Both Higgins’ speeches referred to the early-career researchers who bear the brunt of this model. Many university academic roles suffer unreasonable working schedules and radically variable pay, without the respect or job security of a permanent position.

And as universities such as Trinity see greater profit margins in international students, they become a target market that, once they have graduated, can find themselves stuck in a precarious position.

This scenario was perfectly illustrated by Ilaina Khairulzaman, a Malaysian graduate of Trinity who struggled to find the kind of permanent roles in academia that would enable her to live and work in Ireland long term after her master’s.

“There’s so much emphasis on bringing international students to study here, but not much support when you need to find a job. I felt like there was nowhere to go if I wanted to stay in this field,” she wrote.

“With the way jobs are being offered in Irish universities, people are looking to move abroad for better conditions and lower living expenses. Academia is going to end up with a lack of diversity and different voices, which will have a huge impact on the quality of work that Irish universities produce,” she added, highlighting the widespread issues this system perpetuates.

‘The role of academics is to seize moments and have the courage to provide reaction, to be subversive of received thought assumptions and fallacies’

If the Government really wants return on its public investment in universities, Ireland needs to be a desirable place to stay and work. Otherwise we will be exporting talented scholars, much like we already do with doctors and nurses having given them world-class training first.

In his New York speech, Higgins pointed to the existential challenges facing the world today, which academics can have a hand in solving. “The role of academics, and particularly those involved in the public sphere, it could be argued, is to seize moments and have the courage to provide reaction, to be subversive of received thought assumptions and fallacies,” he said.

“This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo.”

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.