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We are condemned to learn

Towards higher education as a learning society


Author - Dr Ted Fleming


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Irish higher education

Though the European Union (EU) and the Irish government have adopted lifelong learning as their educational policy, it is now widely acknowledged that HE is under-funded. There are increasing demands to engage with the world of work by ensuring that graduates are appropriately trained for the job market. There are demands from national government, the EU and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to standardise qualification frameworks and quality assurance. There is constant pressure to enhance the research and teaching profile of HE, to diversify the student population and to take advantage of a global student market. There is pressure to ensure access for non-traditional students. International reports by Skilbeck (2001) and the OECD (2004) ensure that the role of the university is constantly in public discourse.

Though Skilbeck (2001: 9) understands how societies look to HE to ‘underpin economic growth, improve the quality of life and strengthen the social fabric’ it is clear that the economy is the primary driver for bringing about change in HE. Skilbeck underlines other agendas besides the OECD driven ‘utility function, of developing human capital in part through technology and other applications of knowledge, in part through continuous upgrading of skills and competences’ (2001: 37). According to Skilbeck universities

may not be adequately performing the roles of intellectual leader and moral critic in the public domain and framework of general culture. There is a sense in the community that too often they remain preoccupied with their own needs, especially for public funds, and their specialist interests.

(Skilbeck 2001: 36)

Skilbeck is correct when he asserts that ‘cultural criticism, intellectual leadership and moral leadership tend to run counter to the predominance of economic concerns’ (2001: 37).

The EU White Paper on Lifelong Learning espouses the economic agenda (European Commission 2000). Lifelong learning discourse is predominantly concerned with personal development, upskilling for the workplace and supporting learners as they take their place in the knowledge society (Walters and Watters 2001). The idea that HE serves not only the ‘knowledge economy’ but also the ‘knowledge society’ is frequently missed, for example by the OECD (2004) review of HE.

The traditional student is still the dominant participant in HE. Mature students do not yet account for the targeted 15 per cent of intake. New entrants to university aged 26 and over account for only 2.3 per cent of intake compared to an average of 19.3 per cent in the OECD (2004: 11) as a whole. Expenditure on education is 4.5 per cent of GDP – the OECD mean is 5.6 per cent (OECD 2004: 13). The same OECD report (2004: 32–33) identifies a role for the universities in attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds and integrating part-time students into the funding for HE. The Government continues the unequal treatment of part-time adult students who in general must pay fees. This report confirms the under-funding of Irish HE. The support for increasing students from disadvantaged backgrounds is welcome as are comments about fees for part-time students. The dominant message is that HE serve the economy.

Higher education has indeed a vocational agenda but it also has the aim of making society a more just and caring place and to do that not through economic development alone. HE has the task of researching, teaching and creating a society of critical, just and caring citizens. This paper takes the position that HE has a mission to make the economy and state more democratically accountable. In reaching this conclusion reference will be made to the work of Jürgen Habermas.

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