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