By Janine McGinn.
The Higher Education Authority of Ireland (HEA) affirm higher education institutes should be:
- drivers of “economic and social development”
- “repositories of cultural and intellectual wealth”
- “places where the pursuit of knowledge is its own reward”
- places, “where the emphasis is, on the holistic development of the individual”
(HEA Ireland 2013).
Though the HEA recognise the importance of these “complementary roles of higher education” (HEA Ireland 2013), in higher education strategy, there is an increasingly blinkered focus on just one role, that of driving economic development. In fact, the creation of “an export-driven knowledge economy” is declared as “the broad ambition of higher education in Ireland”. (HEA Ireland 2013)
You might say there is nothing wrong with this. As a higher education policy objective, driving economic development is undoubtedly an important one. However, a difficulty arises when the balance is skewed and it becomes the overarching objective to the detriment of others. It is my view that the broader higher education objectives of the “pursuit of knowledge as its own reward” and of the “holistic development of the individual” have been neglected in a contemporary race towards the industrialisation, commercialisation and marketisation of higher education. We are narrowing the future capabilities of our young people by tailoring their learning to very specific, demands of labour markets (Hirtt 2008).
In education policy documents, undergraduate students are now referred to as “human capital” employed to fuel the “knowledge economy” (HEA Ireland 2013). To power this economy, there are calls for the development of creative and innovative graduates, yet the creativity and innovation which is valued by institutional management is the kind which fits into the industry model of higher education.
The industry model of higher education (the tailoring of higher education to industry objectives) is evident in the Irish National Strategy for Higher Education. The aim is to make HE much more market orientated: “in terms of their explicit focus on meeting Ireland’s human capital requirements and also in terms of enhancing cooperation with industry and commercialisation activity” (Fahey 2014).
Undergraduate higher education initiatives promoting human intellectual curiosity and self-realisation are overlooked. The student is moulded to industry demands. Degree programme content is increasingly specified by large corporations. “Human capital” is processed within a higher education system which is quality controlled at European Commission level:
“graduates' qualifications must meet the needs of the labour market”. (European Commission 2006, p.1)
Traditional education ideals such as the pursuit of truth for its own sake and the development of individuals as self-cultivating, autonomous individuals are being left behind. Instead, skills based, industry specified and sponsored education systems are becoming the new standard.
Have we forgotten the traditional higher education model of a broad based liberal education which goes further than developing an individual’s static professional pathway and focuses on the academic and holistic development of the person?
By carefully and excessively moulding learning content to industry requirements, I believe we are depriving our third level students of a holistic education which encourages intellectual curiosity unfettered by economic interest. We are neglecting to equip our graduates with the ability to cope with diversity and complexity, and the capacity to adapt continuously to this rapidly changing environment.
I argue that the content of our degree programmes needs to be carefully thought out and designed with a balance of objectives. For example, undergraduate technological capabilities should be developed with coincident exposure to intellectual debate and inquiry. Critical and creative thinking should be fostered, as should an increased understanding of the nature of human psychology and sociology.
If we neglect to expose our undergraduates to intellectual inquiry by tailoring their educational experiences to narrow industry based objectives, we are choosing an orwellian unquestioning industry model of worker education, where emphasis is put on the metaphorical continuous flow of the assembly line. If functionality of technology and skills based tasks are assigned greater importance than the stimulation and development of the intellect, we are neglecting our responsibility as educators, to promote the self-realisation capabilities of our students, and by extension we are depriving society of valuable creative intellectuality.
Do we really want our graduates to become mechanistic industry pawns?