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

Author - Sandra Fisher

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The role of higher education: lost in a maze

The role of higher education seems to be lost in some perpetual `crisis'. The 1960s brought a crisis of `governance' arising from student unrest and challenge to the:

Elitist functions of the university based upon the myths of `pure inquiry' and `objective knowledge' which operated, ideologically, to screen out difficult cultural and gender values that determine both what counts as knowledge and legitimate ways of pursuing it.
(Peters 2004: 67)

Concerns about the decline of the humanities in the 1970s and the rise in science and technology brought another `crisis'. In the 1980s and 1990s issues like the funding of higher education, the rise of corporate manageralism in higher education, demands to align higher education with the development of human capital brought new `crises' to higher education.

In Ireland in the new millennium the issue of funding of higher education and the continuance of free higher level education has been `floated' and withdrawn. It may be that this `floating' was a test of public reaction. A review of the Irish higher education system by the OECD was published in September 2004. Part of the OECD's brief was to report on investment and financing of higher education in Ireland. An article by the Education Editor of the Irish Times (Flynn 2004) indicated that while the Minister for Education has signalled that the return of fees was not going to be considered in the `foreseeable future' the OECD report was planning to highlight the funding crisis facing higher education in Ireland and recommend changes `to make the third level sector less dependent on the Exchequer, including closer links with business and industry' (Flynn 2004). When the Report was issued in September 2004 its recommendations included `that subject to means testing, fees for undergraduate study be re-introduced and the ``Free Fees'' policy withdrawn'. If fees were re-introduced the OECD Report (2004) recommended that the state should not reduce its subvention to higher education institutions as the fees generated would `represent a real and tangible increase in HEI's resources' (OECD 2004: 59). The report also recommended that, in respect of part-time students, changes be made to the higher education fees system to equalize treatment of full-time and part-time students (part-time students in Ireland currently pay fees).

I believe that unless the role of higher education is openly debated, and in particular its role in shaping and realizing the public good, then higher education may, in attempting to resolve funding issues, find itself walking a tightrope trying to balance the needs of funders with those of the wider public. Some are predicting that an era of increasing globalization of markets will result in individual countries no longer being `the primary site of economic management and integration'. `Processes of globalization in economic organization, communications and policy regimes' will result in a `retreat of the state from provider to regulator' and the `state will no longer be the sole financier of knowledge' (Delanty 2001: 103).

It seems that higher education cannot make up its mind what it wants or wants to be: sufficient funds to go about its business or autonomy to raise its own finances? (See Barnett 2003: 172.) Competition among higher education institutions for students both in terms of quantity and quality of students now also includes higher educational institutions competing to attract international students. In Ireland higher education institutions seek to be the `first preference' of second level students when these students make their applications for a higher education place through the Central Applications Office. The publication of the results of students' `first preference' creates an informal league table not just for programmes, but also of institutions. Higher education institutions compete also to gain government or EU research funding and also to attract private investment or donations.

In the wake of increasing competition and pressure on the financing of higher education, fund raising and the marketing of higher education institutions to attract students and research funding are not surprising initiatives on the part of higher education institutions in Ireland. Publicly funded institutions now also compete with private sector providers and are under increasing pressure to demonstrate value for money. New measurements of accountability via the listing of learning outcomes for programmes and quality audits is bringing internal and external accountability to the door of individual academics and their Departments/Schools.

In my view issues such as concerns over competition, funding, accountability and new manageralism while impacting on university life, and in many ways a reality of a consumer-orientated society, are forces upon which Irish universities are unlikely to be able to turn back the clock. While causing institutional discomfort these developments perhaps are appealing distractions for higher education to concern itself with. There are much bigger challenges to be faced which require significant institutional reform in order to effect the albeit complex and twin role of contributing to economic development and social justice. Higher education institutions committed to shaping and realizing the public good through giving equal status to their dual role would need to undertake more radical institutional reform and be willing institutionally to present to the public their vision of their place in society.

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