What is the purpose of higher education?



What is the purpose of Higher Education? As I sit down to write this blog post, friends and colleagues north of the border and across the Irish Sea are currently standing on snowy, windswept pickets, and have been motivated to do so by precisely this question. My own response to it is necessarily shaped by their musings on the latest UCU strike which presently adorn my Twitter feed. These musings are honest – often brutally so – conflicted, exhausted and, critically, sad. Acronymic bureaucracy, unrealistic expectations, zero-hours contracting and brutalising competition have become defining features of the academic workload. As Queen’s University Belfast’s Dominic Bryan (full disclosure – he was my PhD supervisor) observed in a recent contribution to Slugger O’Toole:

Rather than seeing Higher Education as a social good (economic and social) it has been made part of a market place, with student fees (supported by loans), a massive range of metrics upon which staff and institutions are judged, and competitive league tables pitting University against University for students (customers) and research funding. Under this pressure the University have become fiscally conservative (some of them are super rich, others relatively rich, whilst some struggle).

In Ireland, we may be spared the very worst of the REF and the TEF, but here too metrification, competition and precarity are increasingly defining features of Higher Education. And this all has implications for research and teaching, and my experience of these.

I am triply privileged by my gender, my whiteness and my having had amazing supervisors, not to mention that I get to do what I love most every day – seek answers to the questions I think matter most. But I nonetheless find myself wondering at times, ‘what exactly is all this for, and am I even doing it right?’ I love what I do, but sometimes the weight of these and other worries keeps me up at night: ‘Am I a good scholar? A good teacher? Do my students know that I worry about this? Should they?’ I worry that I work too little, and feel guilty that I work too much. I try not to compare myself to my peers too critically, and catch myself doing it all the time: ‘Am I good enough?’ In the wake of the strike, and the conversations it has generated, I wonder how much these questions and these worries are a product of the current climate in Higher Education, and whether it is redeemable. That there are people willing to stand on cold February picket lines to demand better gives me cause to hope that it is, but still I worry.

I think Higher Education should be a force for progressive social change, for confronting, interrogating and challenging the status quo, a space in which we have the courage to ask ‘why’ all the time. It’s a place where courage, as such, should be nurtured. At its very best, it can be. But the structures, metrics and administrative meetings that we navigate every day seem designed deliberately to prevent this. Reclaiming time and labour from these structures – as colleagues in the UK are currently doing – seems to be a braver and more educative act than continuing to acquiesce to the demands they place on time and creative energy. My very best moments in Higher Education have been precisely those where I feel I’ve been able to reclaim and exercise my agency, to take pride in my work and (hopefully) inspire others with it. I feel privileged every day that I have colleagues who inspire, push and support me to do this, and often frustrated by a system that leaves us all burnt out. My experience of Higher Education has been defined by tension and contradictions: by amazing highs and real lows.

All of this is a roundabout and digressive way of saying, honestly, that I don’t always know what Higher Education is for, and that this is one of the myriad things I think – and worry – about all the time as I try to navigate my role within it. But if it is for anything, then this is about making the most of the opportunities it gives us to cultivate the will and the wherewithal to say that things could be other, and better.