Inverse ageism in higher education

I was tempted to title this post “Jackie Lavin ate my hamster” – it would have ensured a lot of  hits – but that particular furore is for another day when the dust has settled.

Anyway, having just read  the EU report of the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education, it struck me how inversely ageist the modern education system remains. The Higher Level Group, chaired by Mary McAleese, was dominated by grey men in grey suits, and their female equivalents. I think a far more incisive report would have been produced by a group containing a number of young academics working at the coal face of education in Europe.

Indeed, one of the slightly depressing aspects of the organisation of higher education institutions generally is the extent to which key committees are dominated by ‘senior’ academics like Associate Deans, Executive Deans and higher. For people like these, their daily workload is dominated by administration and management tasks and their contact with day-to-day teaching activities is likely to be small. Where are all the younger academics – if indeed there are any? It would make a good deal of sense to have substantial input from lecturers with significant teaching loads – the real practitioners. These are the people who have their fingers on the pulse of education, who are giving lectures to classes of all sizes, running laboratory modules, marking scripts and actually talking to students. The average lecturer is the person who truly understands the problems we have with poor student commitment, poor knowledge and poor basic skills. He or she is the person who can distinguish between reality and jargon. Those doing the actual job of teaching don’t talk in sound bites. An ‘ordinary’ lecturer would never write something like this truly awful quote from the report of the Higher Level Group: “That which is known is no longer stable. The shelf-life of knowledge can be very short. In many disciplines what is taught and how it is taught are both stalked by the threat of obsolescence. In a changing world, Europe’s graduates need the kind of education that enables them to engage articulately as committed, active, thinking, global citizens as well as economic actors in the ethical, sustainable development of our societies.” This is the sort of verbiage (which sounds to me like an extract from a ‘learned-off’ Leaving Cert essay) that could only be produced by those who are utterly detached from the realities of education. (And, don’t get me going on this fixation with the obsolescence of knowledge.)

It has always seemed to me to be a shame that in this era of Google, Facebook and many other companies started by ‘twentysomethings’, education policy-making still relies on quite old-fashioned hierarchical structures in which the older staff are assumed to hold the bulk of the knowledge and wisdom – something that is more than a little ironic given the constant talk of the rapidly changing 21st century.

There are (or there should be) many young and talented people in the universities, often in their thirties, who are knowledgeable, creative, willing to test (and reject) new paradigms and whose views and ideas are just as valuable, if not more so, than those of academics who have worked in the same institution for decades or more.

We need to stop relying so much on the ‘grey men in suits’ – and their female equivalents – and put more faith in the next generation of academics.

PS Sadly, I am no longer a young academic and although I do not  possess a suit, I am definitely a grey man!


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to Inverse ageism in higher education

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Inverse ageism in higher education

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