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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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Higher education: confronting its `demons'

Has higher education lost the plot? Forever navel gazing around concerns about its role, searching for answers on what counts as knowledge, murmuring about creeping manageralism, losing sleep over money troubles, worrying over issues surrounding accountability and generally feeling misunderstood and misrepresented. These are what I would call the `demons' of higher education in the new millennium. Focusing on all or any of these will not, I believe, give higher education the support or respect of society in the new millennium. The solution to the plight of higher education does not lie within higher education. Simply being a higher education institution does not measure up to a `public good' and will not inspire popular support.

If higher education has a role in shaping and realizing the public good, and if this is achieved via enhancing economic development and greater social justice then higher education needs to look outside the academic world for its raison d'être. Three recent reports in Ireland highlight issues related to economic development and social justice.

The first is a study undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) 2003 entitled Who Learns at Work? A Study of Learners in the Republic of Ireland. This study highlighted the presence of `privileged' and `less privileged' groups in the workplace. The privileged groups are comprised of the relatively younger, better educated, of higher social status employees receiving greater access to company training than the `less privileged' employees who hold lower level occupations (CIPD 2003: 18-20). The second report I want to refer to briefly mention is the United Nations Human Development Report (2004). The editorial of the Irish Times of 16 July 2004 commenting on this Report and Ireland's 16th position out of 17 states on the human poverty index notes `Ireland is an unequal society in which many remain socially excluded'. The third report, the report of the Enterprise Strategy Group July 2004, Ahead of the Curve: Ireland's Place in the Global Economy, emphasizes the importance of ensuring our supply of a suitably skilled workforce.

I mention these reports to illustrate that within them they contain information on important economic and social justice issues confronting Ireland. For example, issues such as equal opportunities for all in the workplace to access education and training, the gap between rich and poor in Ireland, and in order to remain competitive, the country's need to ensure an adequate supply of highly skilled graduates and the constant upskilling of those already in employment. If higher education is looking to `find itself' then it needs to look outside the academy. I am not suggesting that the academy alone can solve the economic development and social justice challenges that are facing society. However, it can and should be helping citizens explore options in respect of the type of world we all live in. Higher education is unique in that it has the potential to be a place where economic and social issues can be introduced and debated together, rather than being treated as separate subjects to be discussed in different reports. This approach might present students with insights into what shapes the world we live in.

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