Celebrate Higher Education - Palgrave Macmillan Authors
In Their Own Voices - Ronaldo Munck
Ronaldo Munck is the co-editor of Higher Education and Community-Based Research (9781137385277). In his own words, he speaks about the importance of Higher Education in today's landscape and what to make of its current role.
Rethinking the Role and Purpose of Higher Education
There is a widespread consensus across the educational and political worlds that the contemporary university is in crisis and that the old model is no longer fit for purpose. Most often the crisis is diagnosed as a funding one but, I believe, it is better understood as a crisis of perspectives. We need to rethink the role and purpose of higher education today, I would argue, as educators but also as parents and as citizens.
The basic question I would pose is whether we – be it as concerned citizens or as professional educators- wish the university to be run according to the same business logic as a profit- making enterprise or, whether, we should seek to follow a public serving or social accountability model and logic for the university and higher education as a whole. Because, as of now, the dominant model that is emerging seems to be one based on a market logic and the new managerialism which treats the university as a business.
The choice is really quite simple. We could just go along with the new managerialism and its vain chase after dubious university ranking systems at home and abroad, or we can ‘go back to basics’ and ask what a university should actually be about. It would be a rare business where those in that business and who have the expertise (academics in this case) were not the drivers of that (re) visioning exercise. So can we please have some more debate on the purpose and future of higher education?
Martin Woolf, Financial Times columnist who had been fully supportive of the free market policies of the 1990’s, now argues that ‘Public goods are the building blocks of civilisation’ (Woolf 2012). Yet one of the central public goods- higher education- is everywhere under attack from those who wish to privatise it and bring it under a market logic. There seems to be little understanding of how the university improves the quality of public life and the social well-being of the citizen.
At present, a narrow and self-limiting strategy prevails in the university system focused on the marketization of knowledge, teaching and research and the reduction of those who work in the universities to mere service providers. Now, if higher education is a public good this bid to privatise (after the collapse of this model in the real world after the 2008 great recession) will not deliver the ‘innovation’ it promises. So there is a lot at stake when we consider the future of higher education.
The recent report Horizon Scanning: What Higher Education Will Look Like in 2020? (by the prestigious Observatory on Borderless Higher Education) argues in this regard that the downside of the turn towards the market is that ‘the ideal of higher education as a public good is under threat’ (Horizon Scanning 2012). Greater public support for the university will not only increase access and participation by those who cannot afford to attend university but will also enhance the competitiveness of the university system as a whole.
Research at most universities is largely paid for through the public purse either directly or through the likes of public trusts and the vital tax exemptions that universities enjoy. Yet, overall, the mission seems to be to provide research back-up to the private sector in less than transparent partnerships where the private/public divide is somewhat blurred. We need to ask bluntly ‘Whose interest is publicly funded research serving?’ The current mission drift of most Western universities towards support for ‘enterprise’ seems to ignore the fact that knowledge generation for the public good is the main basis for public support of higher education.
In terms of teaching, undoubtedly the main innovations centre around on-line learning. It is not a Luddite reaction, though, to query where this is all heading. Sometimes an outdated transmission model of teaching seems to underlie what we might call the new technological opportunism. One recent report concludes that ‘it is likely that many thousands of teaching jobs will have been lost in the US by 2020’ (Horizon Scanning 2012). This is bad news not only for the lecturers concerned but for the quality of teaching where face-to-face contact is central to knowledge formation and the development of critical thinking abilities.
In the early 20th Century there was a major turn in university strategy towards viewing scholarship and teaching producing knowledge that would advance social progress and alleviate human suffering. Today, a narrow market logic prevails which says we should only teach and research what is profitable for private enterprise. We need to explore in a creative and open discussion what a public serving university in the early 21st Century might look like.
As Horizon Scanning: What Higher Education Will Look Like in 2020? argues in terms of the strategic choices we now need to make: ‘Technology is not in the driving seat; people are. Institutions and stakeholders have options’ (Horizon Scanning 2012). We are simply saying that another university is possible and there is no shortage of imagination amongst those working in or concerned with the future of the Irish university.
There are many ways of rethinking the role of the contemporary university. One of those is the subject of a recent book I have organized with my co-editors and co-authors (Munck et al 2014) focused on the new-found centrality of community based research in both the North Atlantic and ‘global south’ universities. Community – based research (CBR) has, in recent years, become an integral element of the contemporary university’s repertoire of activities. It may take different forms and respond to different priorities but it is no longer a marginal activity. It now joins community–based learning – which has a much longer history – as a key component of what is becoming known as the engaged university. We could say, then, that community based learning and research has been mainstreamed, normalized or brought into the field. CBR can even be seen as an activity that grants a competitive advantage to those institutions which promote it. It may serve to develop interdisciplinary research skills, provide students with ‘real world’ experiential learning, promote the ‘public purpose’ of the university and even attract funding from philanthropic donors. These very real issues – especially salient in a period of economic and philosophical crisis – add a note of urgency to current attempts to generate local, national and transnational platforms for community based research as part of the broader engagement mission.
There is also an alternative community based learning and research modality going back to the origins of adult education and a radical 1960’s grass-roots, bottom up or contestatory tradition. Here, education is seen, not as an end in itself, but as a means of achieving individual and social transformation. A critical analysis of the world around us and an understanding of the structures of oppression are central to this alternative pedagogy. From this rich melting pot sprung interest in action research and participatory research in the 1960’s, primarily in the global South but also reflected in the imperialist heartlands as anti-colonialism, anti – sexism and anti-racism came to the fore. Ever since there has been what might be called a minority movement within the academy whereby community links were fostered and social knowledge was valorized. Often on the fringes of the organization, these initiatives nevertheless kept alive a community oriented teaching and research tradition. Sometimes this work is even recognized and promoted by a new generation of higher education managers and educational policy planners.
Rather than counter-pose a mainstream and radical CBR theory and practice we would be better served by acknowledging its complexity. Against all forms of positivism, complexity recognizes that there are no linear laws or simple answers, and no inevitable outcome to social processes. Against all forms of structuralism it also recognizes the importance of agency and the ability of human action to change things. So, a process such as community based research is enormously variable as complexity would advise us, but we also need to recognize contextuality (e.g. knowledge is historically and geographically specific) and contingency (against teleological explanations, we accept the impact of conscious human agents). The university itself is also, of course, subject to complexity, contextuality and contingency and cannot just have a linear teleological plan. If this complex university opens its research (and teaching) to the wider community it will gain in legitimacy but also its integrity and impartiality as an institution is more likely to be recognized.
To conclude I would like to call for more dialogue on the future of higher education. It is vitally important, but what model will best keep our options open? How do we best ensure wider access to university and thus widening participation by those sometimes excluded from the benefits of higher education? While recognising the interests of the business community how do we best ensure engagement by other sectors of society?
Ronaldo Munck is Head of Civic Engagement at Dublin City University, Ireland, and Co-chair of Campus Engage.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan
- Horizon Scanning: What will higher education look like in 2020?, 2013
- Munck,R, Mc Ilrath,L, Hall, B and Tandon, R (eds) (2014) Higher Education and Community Based Research: Towards a New Paradigm (contributing co-editor) New York: Palgrave Macmillan
- Woolf, M (2012) ‘The world’s hunger for public goods’ Financial Times, January 24th.