DCU is a place of learning not just enterprise
SIPTU Education Sector Organiser, Louise O’Reilly, responds to a call by the president of Dublin City University (DCU) for further neo-liberal ‘reforms’ to third level education.
At the 2013 McGill Summer School, DCU President Brian MacCraith called for “public/private hybrid Higher Education Institutions” based on the FEC (full economic costing) model. He argues that we simply need to “accept the fact that the state has no more resources to give” and charge students full economic cost fees. The state-funded places would still see students paying the “normal student charge”. Bizarrely, this model is presented as promoting social equity when in fact it would lead to a two–tier system as in the health sector. There is nothing ‘progressive’ about effectively privatising higher education so that free market rules prevail with only a failing Access safety net for those who are not ‘entrepreneurial’ enough to have €20,000-€25,000 available annually for fees.
MacCraith argues that Finland with its high scores in terms of competitiveness, innovation and technological advancement provides us with a model to transform Irish higher education. However, anyone vaguely aware of the Finnish debate would know things are not that simple. The dismantling of the Finnish welfare state after the economic convulsions of the 1990s meant that while some economic players are in a better position others cannot even join the game. Public opinion surveys show people are looking for more security and a sense of community now. The neo-liberal educational policy - with its emphasis on individual choice and market mechanisms - has disadvantaged female students in particular, not deemed ‘entrepreneurial’ enough for this brave new world. In brief, Finland’s economic and social transformation is highly relevant to Ireland but as much for the problems it has created as for the undoubted efficiency gains.
We all live with the Internet and ICTs generally and very much appreciate how they have transformed teaching, research and administration. Nevertheless, there is something vaguely fundamentalist in the belief that ICT can provide a technological fix for the undoubted problems of higher education in Ireland. MacCraith is impressed by the fact that at Stanford’s medical school “70% of formal instruction now takes place online”. He is also now uncritically promoting MOOCS (massive open online courses) despite most serious research showing that they are far from being a force for the democratisation of higher education. The debate on ICTs shows that they have both positive and negative effects on people, organisations and society more widely. In the field of education the issue of the ‘digital divide’ has created new inequalities, learning does not automatically improve with ICTs and only the naive or deceitful would pretend that organisations do not see the advantages of ICT in terms of reducing the number of staff required.
The neo-liberal - or unregulated market - model is premised on the notion that trade unions disturb the natural order by not allowing the market to set pay and conditions for workers. The onus is on the employee to train up so as to be available for whatever the market requires. MacCraith agrees with this and argues that the lifetime employment paradigm “has to shift to that of ‘lifetime employability’ ”. Thus the emphasis on vague student “attributes” with pride of place being the inculcation of “entrepreneurial principles”. As to staff at DCU, MacCraith proudly told his audience, which included the Minister for Education, that “the system has shown significant elasticity in increasing outputs with decreasing exchequer financial inputs” but that, unfortunately, his staff are not “infinitely elastic”. The work allocation models, job flexibility demands and performance monitoring we are now seeing across the system at DCU are all part of this broader project to create the perfectly elastic staff complement.
We would all probably agree with MacCraith that there is a link between a country’s economic prospects and a good higher education system. But that does not mean we should create a ‘university of enterprise’ based on the so-called values of innovation and competiveness when education is clearly not a market or even quasi market good. This privatised market-oriented model is not only intellectually impoverished but it will not work either because it misunderstands the nature of the university even in the globalised informationalised world in which we live. As teachers and researchers we actually rely on co-operation and not a blind competitiveness.
While citing Noam Chomsky on independent thinking and ‘border crossing’ MacCraith’s real political intent comes through when he advocates the need for “both a broadly educated population and a cadre of top performers”. That is the real story of neo-liberalism generally and the Celtic Tiger in particular, that the rich got a lot richer. So, should DCU be effectively privatised, have its teaching and research agenda set by the business sector and focus on the needs of the “cadre of top performers” capable of paying full economic costs?
Brian MacCraith is, of course, entitled to his personal views on what a university is but these are not necessarily the views of those who work and study at DCU and are committed to a vision of a university beyond the world of ‘competitiveness’, ‘enterprise’ and ICT. In brief, he does not speak in their name. Having said that, his call to develop an overall strategy for the Irish education system is welcomed. But this debate needs to take place in an open and inclusive manner and not behind closed doors. Who at DCU was part of the decision to call it Ireland’s ‘University of Enterprise’? Did they know this was to lead to the university being seen as the cutting edge of neo-liberal strategy involving ‘full economic costing’ and infinite staff ‘elasticity’? There is a need to get beyond the current mood of compliance with management whims because of the dire economic situation. An alternative model of the university is, of course, possible but we need to engage in debate around it and before FEC is implemented. To be frank, repeating Thatcherite mantras of the 1980’s such as competitiveness and enterprise are hardly signs of the much-vaunted “innovation” when it is precisely that economic ideology that has placed us in the economic predicament we have been since 2008. Another university is possible!