Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Higher Education as a global public good?

Yesterday I attended the DRHEA-supported seminar given by Simon Marginson (Melbourne and great renown) which looked at the possibility of higher education being considered as a public good on a global perspective. It was certainly hugely different to the last HE policy seminar I attended in the Helix (DCU) in tenor, disposition and approach. A measured, considered and informed questioning of some of the assumptions about 'the university' and its relationship to society and the economy, there was plenty to digest in Simon's presentation and I look forward both to the recording and a text version to do it full justice. The panel of respondents was also well chosen and with only a few minutes each, they were put on their toes in trying to home in on a key point each, but did so.

The large audience partly reflects Simon's reputation but also the timeliness of such discussion here in post-Hunt Report Ireland. And of course, not atypical for such seminars within the Pale, there was a hefty turnout from the Department of Education and the HEA. A few brave souls had though glid across Ireland's new arterial motorway from the West, DCU now being so accessible to many of us (turn right at Ikea!).

To the substance of his talk. He started with a history of various intellectually driven institutions in times past in both the western and eastern hemispheres and reminded us of how flourishing institutions which have a seeming permanency can be readily dispatched by a political, financial or military blow from those in power: the dissolution of the monasteries in England, the decline of Alexandria and the Buddhist centres of learning across China, being the examples. Just to sober up any complacent university presidents!

He addressed the issue of private versus public goods, giving a brief overview of perspectives on these concepts, and referred throughout to the example being espoused in English HE at the present time, indicating what it implies about the perceived relative value of particular disciplines and the underlying conception of the purposes of higher education. He also wove in comparisons between the contemporary Western perception of individual gain and the more Confucian model as an alternative that would be more likely to accept a broader conception that perhaps lays a foundation of a notion of education as a 'public good' (or at least more collective than individual).

The self-serving nature of large and powerful organisations, such as universities, was also raised in looking at how complicit much of academia has been to the developments in HE policy, despite their avowed objections. For example, the drive for prestige despite distaste for league tables, the constant over-reaching in terms of mission and opportunistic responses to funding availability, the constant assertion of leadership and ownership of a whole range of activities and subjects and the competitive out-stripping the collaborative.

He called for a new vision, centred around a more global approach to the public good argument and championed the idea of flat networks, collaboration on issues of global concern and each playing a part, in a sense almost to decouple from small-scale local battles and seek (almost a moral) high ground in this global age.

Plenty of points were raised in discussion, not just by the panel but also audience members and although there wasn't sufficient time to go into most of these areas, he did make a brave attempt to respond and expand.

Much to think about and well worth the journey.

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