About Level3
Search archives
- June 2007
- August 2006
- May 2005
- June 2004
- November 2003
DIT Home

Read postings about this article   |   Post a comment about this article  |  print this article [pdf]

Is there a need to debate the role of higher education
and the public good?

Author - Sandra Fisher

[<<previous   |  next>>]

Show/ hide article menu (click icons opposite)


Higher education as a knowledge producer: from centre stage to chorus line

According to Scott (2000), in the twentieth century the university was possibly the leading knowledge-producing institution. However, with the entry of other knowledge producers, notably from private sector industry, today higher education is one among many knowledge producers. The massification of higher education has resulted in an increased number of graduates:

who subsequently become competent to pass judgement on university research and who belong to organisations which might do the job just as well. Universities are coming to recognise that they are now only one type of player, albeit a major one, in a vastly expanded knowledge production process.
(Gibbons et al. 1994: 11)

So the number of knowledge producers and the number of people able to judge knowledge has increased. Higher education had been hitherto comfortably dressed in its dual role as a producer of knowledge and a producer of knowledgeability (Scott 2000): secure that it could supply society with rational and scientifically based knowledge and an appropriate number of well qualified citizens. However, what no knowledge producer, including the university, can guarantee to society is that all knowledge produced will bring benefit to society, either locally or globally. Even the most rational and scientifically sound knowledge has resulted in negative consequences for society, such as providing weapons for war, adverse environmental changes, etc. So arguments based on guarding higher education as a public good based on the possibility that it may produce some form of almost higher order knowledge which cannot be produced elsewhere and which will generate `progress' fail unless higher education accepts some responsibility arising from the consequences of the application of knowledge. To argue that the university is detached from society in its production of knowledge is to deny that academic institutions are socially constructed and that all knowledge production involves some form of vested interest, even if it is simply an individual academic wishing to engage in the production of knowledge for personal development or satisfaction. The production of knowledge is, I would argue, purposive, and higher education cannot pretend that by some accident outside its control the end result of its knowledge has been misused. It may not be possible for higher education to prevent the negative impact on society of knowledge or the uses made of knowledge. It can however come out from `under the covers' and communicate its beliefs on knowledge production and application. Barnett wryly comments that the university wants `to claim that its hard-won knowledge is value-free and yet not value-less' and that so-called value-free knowledge makes the university a `prey for any purpose' (Barnett 2000: 25). Even within higher education there may not be agreement on the production of knowledge, but then higher education is arguably not about agreement but about provoking contestation and supporting societies locally and globally to form their views on the sort of society and world we want to live in.

In Ireland in the 1960s the potential contribution of higher education through the supply of a qualified and skilled workforce began to gain prominence and the attention of government (White 2001). Having a supply of well-qualified employees is one of the reasons often cited for Ireland's economic success and the so-called `Celtic Tiger'. Industry Advisory Groups (such as the Expert Group on Future Skills set up by the Irish government to examine and advise on the skill requirements of industry) stress the importance of continued upskilling of the Irish workforce for continued economic development (Report of the Expert Group on Future Skills 2003).


[<<previous   |  next>>]