Every now and then there is some activity in the education sphere that centres on the notion that education is a ‘public good’. I have to say that I find the notion of a ‘public good’ somewhat confusing – I wish people would just talk in plain language and say what it is that they want. My understanding of the idea of education as a ‘public good’ is the following: since all of society benefits from education, education should be paid for by society, i.e., by the state. Furthermore, nobody should be excluded from being educated to the appropriate (for them) level on the basis of inability to pay. That’s all very fine but even if we are to assume that the state has unlimited capacity to pay for education, is it true to say that the benefit of education to society is maximised if it is all left in the hands of the state? Are we absolutely sure that by excluding the possibility of interacting with the private sector we are not missing valuable opportunities that would benefit society even more. Education is not quite like defence which is a public good for sure.
Take the case of Ireland, a country that has been in deep recession with appalling levels of unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Is it a good idea to just keep pumping state resources into education in a non-directed, rising-tide-lifts-all-boats kind of way? Or might it be better to target key industries, industries that are likely to offer the best hope of employment creation. Surely there are few better contributions that we can make to society than helping young people to find employment. Surely it makes more sense to design a nimble educational system that can respond to the needs of the economy while still retaining the core role of serving the overall needs of society. The two things need not be mutually exclusive. There is absolutely no reason why Greek and Roman Civilisation cannot be taught alongside Enterprise Computing where the latter works closely with the software industry while the former just carries on as it always has. For example, it is quite clear that the agrifood sector is entering a period where the opportunities for growth will be enormous. Should our education system just ignore this fact and carry on as normal. Or would it not make a lot more sense for the education system to work with agrifood companies to ensure that we are able to capitalise on these opportunities. This is not about serving the needs of corporations – it is about providing students with the knowledge and skills that are likely to help them build careers. And for most people having a rewarding career is a key part of their personal happiness.
It is for this kind of reason that in my department in DCU we recently convened a panel of external advisers (6 in total, 3 from biopharma industries, 3 from academia). We met for a day and put together a roadmap for updating our Biotechnology program, the idea being that it should continue to meet the needs of the modern biopharma industry. We did not do this to serve the needs of biopharma companies; we did it to further the careers of our graduates. I would make absolutely no apology for involving the private sector in this way.
Everyone in education wants to maximise the benefit of education to society but I suspect that those who have claimed the moral high ground of ‘public good’ have a broader, essentially left wing agenda. Those of us who see the education system as being not quite so simple are no raging neoliberals with some sort of fetish for involving the private sector in education – we are simply being realistic and doing what we believe to be best for our students. I know people hate the term but our students are ‘customers’ to the extent that we owe it to them to do everything we can to get a head start in life.
We need to stop drawing false battle lines and have a realistic debate about how to cope with the challenges ahead. There are three main challenges in my view and these are: (i) increased participation rates, (ii) expectations for third level institutions to be engines of economic growth (and not just through their educational roles) and (iii) the prestige ‘arms race’.
The rise in participation rates is good up to a point but if not matched by an increase in resources, it inevitably leads to a reduction in quality – at least in some disciplines. There is also the genuine worry about dumbing down to suit the less academically gifted.
The expectation that universities should be drivers of economic growth through applied research and innovation incurs a significant cost on institutions. Academics are withdrawn from teaching roles, new and many administrative staff are appointed and capital expenditure, mostly state-funded, is targeted at centres of excellence. The cost per job created suggests that this is an economically inefficient way to do things.
Finally, the prestige ‘arms race’ is a less tangible but potentially far more destructive than either the rising student numbers or the emphasis on research and innovation. As was shown in the documentary The Ivory Tower the constant emphasis on making institutions more prestigious and more attractive to students has driven up the cost of university education to such an extent that there is now over 1 Trillion dollars of student debt in the US. Yet, despite the massive resources put into American campuses, more than 80% of American undergraduates fail to complete their degrees within four years! The huge expenditure on improved facilities, superstar academics, centres of excellence etc. does not seem to have improved the quality of the undergraduate experience. As ranking mania gets stronger by the year, there is an increasing worry that European institutions will get caught up in this prestige arms race. One could argue that the move in Ireland towards the creation of Technological Universities is part of this race. As recent research in TCD has demonstrated, the Institutes of Technology lag far behind the universities in terms of translating research into start-ups and expecting Technological Universities to somehow morph into engines of economic growth, and to do so without huge investment (by the state), is just nonsense. The reality is that the TU concept is driven by a desire for prestige.
I think third level institutions need to get back to basics. Universities are primarily about undergraduate education, closely followed by postgraduate education, and then by research and scholarship that should address the problems of society as much as possible. That is my ‘Ryanair’ view of education – third level institutions doing their core job, doing it well and doing it efficiently. Most Irish third level institutions should be like this. Two or maybe three should aspire to greater things.
Unfortunately, we have all become obsessed with a ‘business class’ view of education – and the costs are unsustainable and ultimately will only be possible if students pay ‘business class’ fees.